Many of the providers I spoke with are engaged in the creative arts themselves. Some, like physician-poet Rafael Campo, share their creativity in meetings with patients. Campo is an internal medicine specialist who sees patients with complex chronic conditions.
I, like some of Campo’s colleagues, wondered how there was room for poetry in the very short time doctors get to spend with their patients. Campo explained to me that he uses poems to build trust with patients, to express empathy and to enter into a narrative contract that assures patients he is interested in the story of who they are.
He shared that many doctors are wary of what is known in health care as the “doorknob phenomenon” – when patients who are leaving the room at the end of a doctor’s visit put their hand on the door, and then turn and ask the question they are really worried about. Rather than taking up time, the use of poetry builds trust so that patients share their deepest worries more quickly, he noted, giving him more time to meaningfully address them.
Nearly everyone will face a point in their lives where medicine cannot provide a solution or sustain life. Our cultural and medical narratives of illness often do not have adequate language for these moments. When therapies don’t work, people are described as “failing” their treatment. And facing one’s imminent death is often characterized as “giving up the fight.”
But artists who work with people at the end of life offer meaningful ways for patients to prepare for these stages and for the impact their death will have on others.
One art therapist who worked in a large cancer hospital shared with me stories of patients who were parents of young children who used their art therapy sessions as opportunities to process their own feelings about their mortality. She told me about a mother who created collages of her very worst fears as well as what brought her hope and strength. She also crafted “legacy art” in the form of letters that would support her son after her death, to be opened at certain future milestones like a first kiss or high school graduation.
Some of the most powerful examples I saw of how art can transform one’s sense of humanity came in these moments – when art-making provided ways to not just document one’s social relationship during life, but to continue it after death.
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Marlaine Figueroa Gray receives funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI).