|Poet, former nurse teaches how humanities add soul
to be powerful medicine. That’s what Veneta Masson found as she
witnessed her sister struggle with cancer for three years. As her
condition worsened, Masson found she ran out of comforting things to
say. She felt exhausted by the effort of it all.
Then she realized only a poem would do, so she began sending various
ones. As a poet, she decided to write some of her own. Masson
shared one of them titled “Poem of the Week” with faculty, staff and
students attending her workshop, The Poetry of Caregiving, recently
held at MUSC.
“There were things I couldn’t say to her, so I’d send her a poem,” she
said, explaining how the poems helped her express deep feelings she
couldn’t get across otherwise. They obviously touched her sister as
well. After her death, Masson found many of them in her sister’s
Author of the poetry collection “Clinician’s Guide to the Soul,” Masson
shared her insights about the value of humanities in health care
education and how it helps to counter what is known in the medical
literature as “ethical erosion” ——a loss of idealism, empathy and
morality that physicians sometimes experience when seeing patients as
diseases more than as people.
Tom Smith, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Academic
Excellence/Writing Center (CAE/WC), said the purpose of the session was
to stimulate a dialogue and to engage the community in an ongoing
effort to share stories of illness and healing. The presentation,
arranged by the CAE/WC, was sponsored by the S.C. Humanities Council
and the Division of Education and Student Life with the support of the
College of Nursing.
The center has set up a Web site where people can share stories of
illness and healing, signed or anonymous at http://academicdepartments.musc.edu/writingcenter/Writing_healing_submissions.html.
Masson said she applauds such efforts. The following tips highlight
some of her suggestions about using the humanities as part of the
Write for insight.
Masson recited a poem “If you could just lose weight” that explored her
frustration in giving the same advice repeatedly to patients who
ignored it, despite the obvious benefits they’d receive if they
followed the advice. The poem helped her understand her own fears in
talking about this issue with patients, and how to be more
compassionate in understanding the perspectives of the patients
receiving that advice.
“That’s a way that writing for me has taken me to a place that I didn’t
know I could go,” she said of the poem. “It helped me get a deeper
insight into what I mean when I so casually prescribe something.”
She also likes the idea of using “parallel charts,” where medical
professionals keep a second record of their encounters with patients
that is more detailed than the traditional medical chart. The record
can include impressions and dialogues. Often this kind of writing can
bring a kind of reflection and processing to the experience that the
health professional wouldn’t get otherwise.
permission to write.
Health professionals don’t have to be writers to write. At various
seminars she’s led, she has heard that some participants are afraid to
write or dislike poetry. She encourages them to take another
perspective. Just as there are all types of music, there are all kinds
of writing and poetry. From her experience, including serving as a
registered nurse for 35 years, the writing adds a richness to the
practice of medicine that can counter the impersonal aspects of high
technology and hurriedness so often present in medicine.
Use poems as battery
It can be easy to get burned out in the health care profession. Masson
said it’s good to remember that down deep science can only take us so
far in dealing with the serious issues in life. “The carefully crafted
and condensed language works like a battery to keep you charged up,”
she said. “Poetry doesn’t give you just the facts. It gives you
insights as well.”
Create a memory wall.
Post poems that resonate with you on the “walls of your memory,” she
said. She began this practice after hearing a story about a prisoner of
war who was allowed no books of any kind. He kept himself sane by
recalling the poems he had memorized. Masson said it made her think
what she’d be able to pull up if she were in a similar situation. She
began to post poems she loved on cards and started memorizing them.
“I hope for you that there may be a poem that comes along that
resonates with you, and you’ll post it on your wall,” she said.
Everyone loves a
Writing and sharing poetry helps to tune health professionals into the
stories playing out around them. Masson began writing essays as a way
to process the intensity of her experiences in a small, inner-city
clinic in Washington, D.C. that she helped to found.
“These experiences had to have somewhere to go.”
Masson said she has left poems out in the waiting room and passed many
along to colleagues to address a particular crisis being faced.
Sometimes patients have given her their poems. Sharing stories finds
the common ground between people. Sometimes there’s not a pill to be
given out, she said.
“It’s more complicated than that. Illness is a human experience.”
For information on Masson, visit http://www.sagefemmepress.com/.
Poem of the Week
A friend’s sage advice:
Just do what you can do
on a given day.
So on days I can’t pray
or pick up the phone
I send a poem.
Poem of the Weak,
I once accidentally called it.
I’ve sent Carver, Frost
Pastan, Olds and others—
my cloud of witnesses.
Let these poets earn their keep.
Let them speak for me.
Let them enter the house
haunted by illness.
Let them open the doors
shut against fear.
For in trouble
the poem is strong medicine
like the wind that blows
where it wills,
like the serpent of brass
set upon a pole
in the wilderness.
permission from the author, Veneta Masson
Missed the workshop?
Check out the poet's favorite reads
Stories—whether they be fiction or memoir, prose or poetry—offer health
professionals common ground on which to enlarge our understanding of
health and illness, forge partnerships with other health professions
and improve clinical practice said poet Veneta Masson.
Web sites to
List of favorite readings from the Maine Humanities Council’s lit-med
The NYU Literature, Arts & Medicine Database: http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/Main?action=aboutDB
It is “an annotated multimedia listing of prose, poetry, film, video
and art that was developed to be a…resource for teaching and research
in medical humanities, and for use in health/pre-health, graduate
and undergraduate liberal arts and social science settings.”
http://www.pulsemagazine.org. It is a weekly online publication
featuring personal stories of health care to foster the humanistic
practice of medicine.
Books for the
Some of her favorite books include the following.
Broyard, Anatole. “Intoxicated by My Illness,” by Anatole Broyard.
“Tenderly Lift Me—Nurses Honored, Celebrated, and Remembered” by Jeanne
“The Healing Art—A Doctor’s Black Bag of Poetry” by Rafael
“A Life in Medicine—A Literary Anthology” editted by Robert Coles and
“The Heart’s Truth—Essays on the Art of Nursing” editted by Cortney
Davis and Judy Schaefer.
For the complete list, visit http://www.musc.edu/catalyst/massonlist.
Friday, Sept. 17, 2010