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Narrative Medicine: How a Poem Can Save a Life

I could prescribe any of a dozen antibiotics to cure endocarditis, or even a thrombolytic agent to stave off a heart attack; but what I yearned for was the elixir of poetry, which could heal the otherwise untreatable condition of my broken heart.1
~Rafael Campo

When I stumbled upon The International Women’s Writing Guild in 1984, I was a young woman of 32, newly emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, watered by a deep well of grief inherited upon my sister’s death, and fed by a promise I’d made to her that I would write the story of what we had lived through together.

The Guild helped me keep that promise, and 32 summers later, having written and published Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir, I also became a graduate of Columbia University, holding a master’s degree in Narrative Medicine. “What’s that?” everyone asks. It is a burgeoning field of inquiry and practice wherein the starchy edicts of Medicine are exposed to Literature, Art, and the Humanities, with the aim of expanding narrative capacities in the clinical setting. Narrative Medicine practice fosters the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of others. It addresses the need of patients and caregivers to voice their experience, to be witnessed and heard, and, therefore, to be valued. It acknowledges the power of narrative to change the way care is given and received.

Poetry is a staple of Narrative Medicine practice. Dr. Danielle Ofri suggests that articles and essays simply do not capture the essence of the experience of illness or dying the way poetry does. Like Dr. Ofri, physician Rafael Campo not only makes use of poetry in his teaching and patient treatment, but he is also a widely published poet.

Forgive me, body, for
what seems like calculation when I take
a breath before I cut you with my knife,
because the cancer has to be removed.2

“‘A good poem engulfs us,’ says Campo, ‘takes hold of us physically. Its concision and urgency demand the participation of another in order to achieve completeness, to attain full meaning. In these ways, it’s not so different from providing the best, most compassionate care to our patients.’”3

Poetry is also a staple of my own life. When I need to make deep emotional sense of what’s happening around and inside me, what helps me most is to write a poem. Long before I understood how poetry worked in me or why, writing it became an essential form of self-care. I first came to poetry and the writing of poems at age 10, at the behest of my 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Hetherington. Before the end of that school year, my new baby brother would be diagnosed with cystic fibrosis—as was my sister four years prior. It was 1963. Bob Dylan would release “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” James Meredith would be the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi. I would learn to Double Dutch, spelling out the name of that state. The Cuban Missile Crisis would unfold. My classmates and I would begin monthly nuclear air-raid drills, learning how to dive under our desks. My parents would fashion a bomb shelter out of the cold-storage pantry in the basement, where Ball jars of my mother’s “done down” cucumber pickles and strawberry jam sat in silent rows on rough-hewn wooden shelves. That’s what we’d live on, I’d guessed, in the event of nuclear war—pickles and jam. Before the end of that school year, Alfred Hitchcock would terrify us with The Birds, and Betty Friedan would begin to liberate women with The Feminine Mystique. Patsy Cline would die in a plane crash, and Mrs. Hetherington would die of cancer. I would begin the ritual of taking pad and pen into the nearby woods to walk, weep, and write poems. Later, I would read them aloud by flashlight as my sister listened in the dark on the other side of our room.

When I attended The Guild’s 7th Annual “Remember the Magic” Conference that summer of 1984, the poems used as prompts in virtually every writing workshop, and the poems I wrote in their shadow, broke something loose in me. Those poems and the ones I wrote at many concurrent summer conferences were foundational to healing what felt broken in me. I wrote, I wept, and I was witnessed. And as I witnessed others in turn, my spirit grew stronger through the act of listening, riding a “river of women with words.”4

We wrote ourselves into Being on the backs of poems written by women before us and for us. And we listened each other into Being as we read our poetry aloud to each other.

Those poems became integral to the prose that fashioned my memoir about growing up in immediate proximity to illness and death. Poems embody our proximity to the Other, and to mortality. Death means separation from the Other, and disembodiment. Perhaps uniquely, poems strike at the heart of what it means to be at once with and without, to be both human and divine.

Notes:

  1. Rafael Campo, “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public,” Poetry Foundation (September 12, 2006).
  2. Rafael Campo, “Morbidity and Mortality Rounds,” Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016 (Duke University Press, September 2018).
  3. Danielle Ofri, “Patients Need Poetry,” Slate (July 10, 2013).
  4. With thanks to Eunice Scarfe.

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Heather Summerhayes Cariou, B.F.A., M.S., is a 2016/17 post-graduate Fellow in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Before becoming the author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir (Globe and Mail Best 100 Books of 2006), she trained and worked professionally as an actor/singer/dancer on stages across Canada and off-Broadway. A damn-the-torpedoes kind of gal, she once paddle-captained a raft full of screaming women through Rogue River’s Blossom Bar rapid at high water and made a full-Kabuki Thanksgiving dinner in a Baltimore hotel room for the cast and crew of a Broadway-bound musical. Heather revels in the life of the mind and the open road of the heart. She has several writing and/or performance projects currently on the go or in the pipeline, including a collaboration with author Ann Burack-Weiss, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., to adapt her book The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life to the stage.

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