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Poetry Heals allows nurses to express difficult emotions

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Poetry long has been used to help patients deal with complex emotions. Now nurses and other healthcare professionals in New Jersey are finding out how powerful and beneficial poetry can be for them, too.

The New Jersey Council for the Humanities recently teamed with poets from CavanKerry Press, a nonprofit literary press, to conduct a second year of Poetry Heals programs at hospitals across the state.

The workshops are part of a larger national program, Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare. Gloria Chappelle, RN, education coordinator and infection prevention liaison at Morristown (N.J.) Medical Center’s Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute considers herself fortunate to be part of the literature discussion program.

“It was very therapeutic,” said Chappelle, who has been at Morristown for 42 years and recently received a lifetime achievement award. “Caregivers in general do not think about themselves because they’re caring for others. You’re hard on yourself. At these sessions, it gives you the opportunity to say, ‘I have feelings too.’”

During the Poetry Heals workshop in April at Morristown, Chappelle and others took part in a spontaneous writing exercise. Afterward, with the opportunity to evaluate the workshop, Chappelle said she gave the program high marks.

“I said I was thankful for that day in which again I could express my feelings to the group,” she said. “I felt safe.”

Poet and CavanKerry Press Associate Publisher Teresa Carson coordinates the Poetry Heals workshops with Mary Rizzo, NJCH associate director. Carson said the original intent of the workshops was to help healthcare professionals better understand patients’ experiences.

“Afterward, we said it’s not [just]about them understanding their patients more, it’s also a way for them to talk about their own experiences,” Carson said. “It allowed healthcare professionals to talk to each other about their very complex experiences and particularly their complex emotional experiences, and dealing with life-and-death situations every day.”

Carson is able to connect with healthcare professionals through her own experiences involving the suicide of a brother. Her book, “Elegy for the Floater,” chronicles those gut-wrenching times in her life.

“I wrote about the confusion of having a brother who was schizophrenic, and in a sense I was relieved when he died,” Carson said. “It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s an emotional truth.

“I find that in some way, the fact that I open up to them, I think that sometimes eases them to open up to me.”

Carson said finding the right poems to connect with healthcare professionals can be tricky. “I tried Walt Whitman and that was a complete flop,” she said with a laugh. But she does take her work in the program seriously.

“We want to make this a meaningful experience,” she said. “Mary [Rizzo] and I work hard at making that happen.”

By all indications, the program is working. The response to the Poetry Heals workshops conducted at The University Hospital – University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Vice President of Patient Care Services and CNO Theresa Rejrat, RN, MA.

Rejrat said nurses see humans at their most vulnerable time, and that can be difficult to take without an outlet for the emotions such experiences can create. The Poetry Heals workshops have been one of those outlets.

“Instead of [nurses]burning out, we see poetry as a way of illuminating [their]experiences,” Rejrat said. “The ratings of [the workshops]are extremely high.”

Hilary Bloom, RN, BSN, works in the neuro intensive care unit at The University Hospital and has had a lifelong love affair with poetry. She took the opportunity to share with her colleagues a poem she wrote about the recent death of her great-grandmother during a Poetry Heals workshop.

“For me, it was nice to share,” Bloom said. “The response was pretty positive. A woman there said I should publish it in a nursing magazine.”

Tom Clegg is a freelance writer.

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