In July 2012 the Poetry Foundation published two articles on “The Healing Power of Poetry.” In “The Poetry Ward" Dr. Danielle Ofri recounts how she “prescribes” poems for patients and medical students alike. In the case of students, the doctor, an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital, calls the practice “Post-call Poetry” and combines the reading of a poem with refreshment of some kind—fresh fruit, or on a special occasion, a chocolate cake. She describes the effect of her sharing a poem, during Grand Rounds, with “a chronic Bellevue Hospital alcoholic.” The man is amused by the poem—a rebuke addressed by a speaker much like him to his doctors—and announces that English was his favorite subject in school.
“For the duration of his stay at the hospital,” says Ofri, “I noticed the medical team treated him much more like a ‘citizen’ and less like an annoyance.” It was no longer possible, it seems, for the students, residents and attendings to see the man purely as a type—a chronic alcoholic with tremors and “toxic sock syndrome.” In responding to the poem and connecting it with his own experience, the patient shook off his identification with his disease and became a person in their eyes.
Ofri’s account of this incident reminded me of the words of a palliative care physician at Cook County Hospital who participated in a monthly civic reflection program for two years. She described the kind of connection that the program encouraged team members to develop with one another as “a human-level encounter.” The team at Bellevue was able to have “a human-level encounter” with the patient in addition to the medical one. Encountering a poem (or another short piece of literature, or an image, video or recording) together, talking about its meaning and implications, we encounter one another in a new way.