In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

May 14, 2015

‘Healing Words’ Program Encourages Patients to Write, Reflect and Clarify

By In the Loop

e-Patient Dave on Mayo's "Healing Words" program.Dave deBronkart found writing was important in his healing process after a cancer diagnosis. He shared his story through a program that encourages patients to use writing as a way to make sense of what has happened to them. 

Back in 2007, Dave deBronkart was diagnosed with stage IV, grade 4 kidney cancer. The median survival time: 24 weeks. Eight years later, deBronkart (you may know him as e-Patient Dave) remains very much alive and well. The story of how he got from there to here could fill a book. And it has. Three of them, in fact. And those words have been an important part of his healing process.

Recently, deBronkart shared an excerpt from his first book, "Laugh, Sing, and Eat Like a Pig," as part of Mayo's "Healing Words" program. "Healing Words" is a series of interviews with visiting writers sponsored by Center for Humanities in Medicine and broadcast on Mayo's patient television network.

When asked about the role writing played in his healing, deBronkart explained to host Jacquelyn Fletcher that he's had a "very strong personal sense over the course of my life that when there is some unresolved thing that wants to get expressed, it's like congestion in my soul." After his cancer diagnosis, deBronkart says, colorfully, his soul needed "to blow its nose." That helped to clear things out so he "could breathe more easily." And, he says, "the process of taking a vague feeling and converting it into a stream of words for me was useful."

That's music to the ears of Johanna Rian, coordinator of the Dolores Jean Lavins Center for the Humanities in Medicine in Rochester. "It's great to see people understand that writing is a way to begin to make sense of what has happened to them," she tells us. "There's power in that tool, especially for patients who may have lost some sense of control."

With that in mind, each episode of "Healing Words" includes a writing prompt for viewers who may wish to pen some of their own healing words. It also contains contact information for the Center's "Arts at the Bedside" program, which connects professional writers, musicians and artists with hospitalized patients to help them integrate "personal artistic expressions into the healing process." Some patients work with authors to capture memories. Others ask for help drafting legacy letters for loved ones. One patient, according to Rian, told an author, "Writing helps me escape this decrepit body."

Demand for the program is high. "Approximately 500 patients have participated in 'Arts at the Bedside' so far this year, and many more are interested and would like to participate, if we could provide artist hours," Rian tells us. Funding for the program, which is free to patients and their family members, is limited.

"Healing Words" is broadcast on the Humanities Channel (708) on Mayo TV. Ten episodes have been produced, and guests have included Danielle Ofri, M.D., and Rafael Campo, M.D. The Humanities for Medicine Program in Rochester offers other opportunities to grow and heal through writing, including monthly Narrative Healing workshops for patients, and Literature and Medicine workshops for staff and students.

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Tags: Center for Humanities in Medicine, e-Patient Dave, Healing Words, Johanna Rian, Patient Stories

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