A Prescription of Poetry: “More hospitals are turning to the power of the written word, and poetry in particular, to help patients heal.”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Sumathi Reddy titled “A Prescription of Poetry”:

Dr. Joshua Hauser approached the bedside of his patient, treatment in hand. But it wasn’t medicine he carried. It was a copy of a 19th-century poem titled “Invictus.”

It isn’t often that doctors do rounds with poetry. But Dr. Hauser, section chief of palliative care at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, and colleagues are testing it as part of a pilot study. He entered Mr. Askew’s room. The patient had asked for “Invictus,” a dark poem by William Ernest Henley that he remembered from his past.

Mr. Askew shielded his face with his hands as Dr. Hauser, leaning forward, slowly read the poem.

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” the poem ends.

“Yes,” mumbled Mr. Askew, a 68-year-old who served as a Marine from 1969 to 1970 and was in the hospital for a broken collarbone and rib. He also suffers from metastatic prostate cancer.

The poem sparked a stream of consciousness from Mr. Askew. He talked about the Vietnam War, rich people, his deceased parents and, finally, his cancer. “I’m not gonna roll up in no ball and cry because I’ve got cancer. I’m just gonna keep going, keep moving. It is what it is,” he said.

“I’m not giving up. I’m tired, but it’s not the kind of tired where I’m giving up.”

Poetry may not be common in the medical setting. But more hospitals and medical schools are turning to the power of the written word, and poetry in particular, to help patients process their conditions and heal. . . .

Dr. Hauser says the poems often elicit patients’ memories about their youth or their parents, or reflections on their illness and mortality.

“By looking at a piece of text which has some uncertainty or ambiguity, I think they are able to reflect back on their illness in a way that direct questions might not get to,” Dr. Hauser says. . . .

Dr. Hauser, an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says that poems often spark conversations that are more associative in nature, like the one with Mr. Askew.

For the study, Dr. Hauser and Nora Segar, another physician at the hospital, reached out to the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. The nonprofit connected them to some local poets who helped curate three collections of poetry revolving around nature, Chicago and health.

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