Participants in the Literature and Medicine series included, front row from left, Deedra Abner, BSN, RNIV, BC; Jennifer Miles, BS, RN, Nurse Manager for, 2 East Multi-Specialty Care Unit at UM Shore Medical Center at Easton; Sharon Stagg, DNP, MPH, FNP-BC, COHN-S, Director, Shore Wellness Partners; and Barbara Bilconish, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, Director of Professional Nursing Practice and Magnet Program. Back row from left are Gail Shorter, MS, CEN-BC, Critical Care Graduate University; Brian Childs, PhD, Director of Ethics and Spiritual Health; and Diane Walbridge, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, Director of Clinical/Financial Nursing Resources.
“Most people in health care these days say they don’t read literature,” observes Dr. Brian Childs, Director of Ethics and Spiritual Health. “They don’t have time – they work long hours and in many cases, spend their ‘free’ time trying to keep up with research and advances in their area of health care by reading professional journals.” But in 2012, for employees from a variety of nursing, medical, technical and administrative departments, reading literature had a profound impact on their feelings about their work, their interactions with patients and colleagues and their perceptions of their own roles in health care and the industry at large.
These employees participated in “Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care®,” a hospital-based reading and discussion program that was originally developed by the Maine Humanities Council in 1997. Funded by a grant from the Maryland Council for the Humanities, the SHS program was organized by Dr. Childs at the request of Christopher Parker, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, CHQM, FAIHQ, Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer.
Much of the reading completed by the group came from Imagine What It’s Like: A Literature and Medicine Anthology produced by the Maine Humanities Council with funding support from the NEH, companies and foundations, and the Hawaii Council for the Humanities. The book contains 83 selections, including essays, short stories, excerpts and poems draw from what the editor, Ruth Nadelhaft, calls “a necessary but still imagined intersection of medicine and the humanities.” Authors include Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Conrad Aiken, Edward Albee, Flannery O’Connor, and W.H. Auden—along with lesser known and even anonymous writers.
Once a month for seven months, the group met to discuss their readings with the help of two local facilitators, John Ford, a retired professor of literature, and John Miller, Director of Facilities for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
“Our facilitators did a fantastic job,” says Childs, who participated in the program. “With their help, we were able to look at some of the more difficult aspects of health care, even at what I would call the darker undersides that are hard to face and talk about, like anger and frustration with patients, and our own biases in dealing with them. For example, we read a piece by William Carlos Williams, who was a physician serving a mostly poor population, in which he referred to an uncooperative six-year old with suspected diphtheria as a ‘little monster who needed to be protected against herself.’ Some of our clinical participants could relate to his anger in terms of their own challenges with patients, and were relieved to be able to discuss that openly.”
Several readings offered insights into the patients’ points of view, and others touched on such issues as death and dying, research ethics, and perspectives and experiences of nurses, doctors and caregivers. Says Childs, “There was great variety — from vignettes about emergency room ‘frequent fliers,’ to the nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, to Regeneration, a novel about a World War I army lieutenant who is placed in a psychiatric hospital.
“The novel, Regeneration, particularly interested me, and I went on to read the other two books in that trilogy,” says Dr. Brian Corden, MD, a pediatrician who participated in the goup. “I think the author, Pat Barker, captured pretty well how people of that time viewed the devastating effect of trench warfare on the psyche of the foot soldier. Also interesting was the response of the British psychiatric establishment to this trauma. Throughout the program, the group discussions were always lively and the facilitators did a great job.”
Now offered by hospitals in 25 states, Literature & Medicine has reached hundreds of providers, staff members, administrators and policy makers in health care facilities across the country, affecting the care of thousands of patients. Post-program evaluations have indicated tremendous benefits, with the majority reporting “great or medium” increases or improvements in their empathy for patients, their interpersonal relations and communication skills, their cultural awareness, and their job satisfaction.
Says Gail Shorter, MSN, RN-BC, CEN, one of the 19 nurses who participated in the program, “For me, and for others as well, I think, the most valuable part of the program was hearing the various viewpoints of other participants for disciplines other than nursing –we all read and interpreted differently. I also appreciated getting to know some of my colleagues on a different playing field, I think for many of us it deepened our understanding of each other.”
“Literature and Medicine is really a wonderful program, and I know that for the Shore Health participants, it proved a great way to re-connect with the reasons they went into health care, and to re-energize their commitment to their work and their sensitivity to patients and their families,” comments Parker. “I look forward to offering the program again so that more of our clinical, administrative and support staff can experience these benefits.”