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The Power of Poetry: Healing and Hope

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By Delia Cruz Kelly

The discipline of “Medical Humanities” might seem oxymoronic; what do the arts have to do with the work of physicians and clinicians?  Where is the connection? “The First Annual Symposium on Healing and Hope: An Evening of Poetry by Patients Family Members, and Health Professionals” sought to mend the gap between two fields that may seem unrelated by showcasing how poetry can serve as a healing art for both patients and their medical care-taker. This event was supported by UCI Illuminations in Co-sponsorship with The UCI  School of Nursing, The UCI Medical Humanities Initiative, The UCI-SoM Program in Medical Humanities & Arts, and The Laguna Beach Poets Workshop.

On February 22nd, Humanities Gateway 1030 was filled with UCI students and visitors alike, curious about poetry and all of its transformative power. Perhaps none as curious or as passionate as the evening’s moderator and UCI professor of English, Jayne Lewis. She opened the night by borrowing words from author of “Illness as Metaphor”, Susan Sontag, who says, “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick”. These compelling words ushered in the stories the 9 poets and their poems would tell of their experiences in both kingdoms and their borderlands, experiences that were endured by the graces of hope and healing.

The first half of the symposium had readings from five poets, beginning with Frank Meyskens, Director of the cancer center at UCI and co-organizer of the event. Meyskens’ opening poem of the night, serendipitously titled “Illuminate”, shed light on the realities of healing and its lengthy but delicate process. The life-long character of hope was created in neurologist and UCI professor Steve Cramer’s poem “Hope” which oscillates between young and old personifications of the concept . Katherine Brown Saltzman, Co-Director of the UCLA Health System Ethics Center and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the UCLA School of Nursing,  moved the entire room with her poem “Apportioning”, arguably the most emotionally evocative piece of the night. “Apportioning” was written during her stay at a monastery after unexpected deaths of loved ones. Its reflective and contemplative tone begs the question, “How and what should be apportioned to this moment?” Representing the UCI student body, 2nd year medical student Nahzaneen Sedehi creatively described hope as “the unspoken contract with a semi-delusional devil” in her poem “Hopesick”, which she admittedly wrote in traditional medical student fashion: last-minute. “Hello Darkness” by cancer survivor and poet Karen Dale closed the first group of readings by emphasizing the gradual nature of healing, echoing the central line of this first group of readings: writing, especially poetry, is necessarily cathartic.  

After a short break, the listening and learning continued with four more talented poets and writers. In prefacing her playful poem “Neighbors”, Johanna Shapiro, cancer survivor and Director of the Program in Medical Humanities & Arts at UCI — SoM as well as co-organizer of this event, described how there are different types of reactions when death is so near to you as a cancer patient. Hers were arrogance and flippancy, both great fodder for this quirky poem that intended and succeeded to cut death down to size. The mechanics behind poetry are beyond most lay-persons’ scope of knowledge, making family physician and published poet Gabriella Miotto’s pantoum verse form poem “Fractured” that much more captivating with its repeating lines and cryptic patterns. Tiffany Pham, 3rd year medical student at UCI, took the podium with her visionary poem “Bleach and Scrub”, detailing the transformation of that coveted white coat through its first year of in-hospital experiences. Denise Healey, Chief Administrative Officer of the UCI Department of Medicine and spiritual director at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality, closed out the second group of readers with her short yet poignant poem “Where are You?”. Her words before she began aptly captured what much of the audience came to feel after so many amazing pieces of art: “The word ‘Poet’ is so big to try on”.

To end the night as it began, Meyskens returned with his poem “Don’t Ever Say Goodbye” which he called an anthem of hope. In its perfect final lines, it reads: “Don’t ever say goodbye, / in the darkness of your night / For the courage of your hope brings miracles at dawn. / Wait until the morning comes.” The language of poetry speaks from the heart, and there is no greater healing than the ability to make sense out of suffering through crafted verse.