Archive for the ‘medical humanities’ Category

I’m off to The Healing Art of Writing Workshop at Dominican University in San Rafael, California, a city in Marin County just north of San Francisco. I am hoping to make some strong connections with other writers and healers, affirm my dedication to writing, revel in the company of writers and artists who are devoted to or interested in the field of medical humanities, and learn new techniques and strategies for expressing oneself with clarity and power.

For the first time, I have submitted writing to the workshop that does not have to do with my memoir manuscript about infant surgery, The Autobiography of a Sea Creature. I wrote a brand new piece to share titled “My Mother’s Ears” about my mother’s hearing loss and the effect it had on me growing up. My mother’s hearing was damaged after undergoing a surgery at age twenty-five in which she had chosen to try an experimental anesthetic rather than suffer the debilitating effects of ether.

I had heard many times about how her hearing loss occurred, how the resulting tinnitus affected her, and how my mother attempted to rectify the problem early on. Tinnitus, according to Merriam-Webster online, is a sensation of noise (as a ringing or roaring) that is caused by a bodily condition (as a disturbance of the auditory nerve or wax in the ear) and typically is of the subjective form which can only be heard by the one affected.” The condition sounds rather benign in this definition but the ringing in my mother’s ears was so severe that she could not hear the outside world without hearing aids.

Growing up, my mother told the story of her hearing loss over and over in the same way each time. Similarly, she had a particular way of telling and retelling my pyloric stenosis story–the same time-worn phrases again and again. Repeating a story of trauma is one of the clues in identifying a person who may be suffering from PTSD. When we hear ourselves and/or others telling a story over and over in the same tone and with the same words, something is stuck or frozen. The person needs a little kickstart to begin the journey of healing from whatever wounded him or her.

I am only now discovering what it means to live a normal life, that is, one in which post-traumatic stress does not dominate. In a way, I’ve been reborn. I still have symptoms but I recognize them quickly and work with them in order to free myself from repetitive or stuck patterns of thinking and behavior. Just this morning in my meditation, I found myself frozen in a breathing pattern that I probably learned as a three-week old coping with acute pain after a stomach operation. My face above my nose is numb and my upper body completely rigid. This strategy enabled me to deal with a difficult situation as a baby but now when the pain and danger are no longer present, it is disturbing and limiting.

John Fox’s poetry workshops might help me out. Each morning at the workshop, I’ll be sitting in a circle of writers, listening to and discussing published poems and then writing and sharing poems of our own. Perhaps I’ll take this PTSD symptom on, the latest one calling for resolution. Writing a poem about my frozen head and shallow breath might free me up. In the meantime, here’s an affirmation I’ll try: I breathe naturally and fully, energizing my entire body. Breath awakens. Breath is my friend

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Just want to share some feedback from  two of the participants in my workshop Blog, Heal, Teach at the Carver College of Medicine in Iowa and some photos.

This response is from Dr. David G. Thoele:

I really enjoyed this presentation and am now filled with ideas for starting my own blog in the future. Wendy explained the tools used in blogging and really explained the value of the blog in creating a conversation in addressing a broader community. We spent three minutes writing our own “blog entry,” and I was amazed at how easy it was to come up with some ideas on paper that I had thought of regarding my profession as a pediatric cardiologist: How can I show compassion to my patients when I work in a community of doctors who is often uncompassionate to ourselves: long hours, interrupted sleep, and a prolonged hazing process called med school, residency, fellowship?

Here’s another response from Nancy Gross, Humanities Educator at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey:

*certainly learned about your particular medical issue, which was unknown to me

*how it affected your personhood

*and how you used blogging to create community and wholeness–


Below, the medical education building, MERF, where the conference The Examined Life-Writing, Humanities, and the Art of Medicine was held:

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Three days of intense medical humanities immersion at The Examined Life Conference, Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa in Iowa City!  What fun! There’s so much to say. Here’s a snapshot.

First, the friendships I made are  the most precious take-away. The support that I received was so heartwarming and generous. Another big gift is the privilege and unforgettable experience of writing, sharing, and learning with medical professionals and writers; these folks are just so smart! I’ve got a zillion handouts, pamphlets, books, and business cards.

Presenting my blog workshop was thrilling–to stand up at the podium click-click-clicking the mouse, sending an image of my blog onto the big screen as I ran through the different types of things bloggers do, was so cool. One of the participants asked what happens when you get tired of the blog you’ve created. I realized that a blog is a medium that grows with you. Initially in blogging, I was looking for fellow pyloric stenosis survivors (and I still am). In the past two years, many of  my posts discuss ways to use PTSD as a teacher in healing from early trauma. In the future, myincision could morph into serving as the base of a non-profit organization that seeks to fund research for understanding the true cause(s) of pyloric stenosis. Realizing that was an epiphany!

One of my favorite moments at the conference was in the workshop “Public Medical Writing: Highlights from a Longitudinal Curriculum for Medical Trainees” led by medical students at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The facilitators broke us up into groups. Three doctors, a medical humanities educator, and I wrote in response to a prompt. We then took turns, each reading his/her piece and getting feedback from the group in a manner prescribed by the workshop leaders. I loved this exercise because it involved doctors and non-clinical types, like me, teaming up.

Another key highlight of the weekend was meeting a fellow pyloric stenosis survivor in person, who I had come into contact with through my blog and with whom I have been emailing. He just happened to live near Iowa City and drove over one morning to have breakfast with me!

There is so much more. I’ll leave you with this: The study of medical humanities is my home and The Examined Life Conference is a place where, as Dr. David Watts put it, “kindred spirits” find each other.

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I was explaining to my community college English class what the term medical humanities means when one of the student’s hands shot up. She told the story of a friend of hers whose baby had just had surgery to repair a cleft palate. The surgeon’s first words to the parents after the operation were the issue. He said, “The surgery was successful, but you’re not going to like what you see.” The parents were horrified. You’re not going to like what you see.

This type of story is why I understand that there’s still so much work to do in the field of medicine. Communication is key. Here’s a super-skilled surgeon with a decade of training and tons of experience– the operation was successful —who terrified already frightened parents. One might say, well, the parents can handle it; after all, the operation went well.  But why should anyone have to “handle” it?  Parents of infants who’ve had surgery need a lot support and deserve clear and thoughtful communication.

Consider this, too. The surgeon’s words undercut his own success. Instead of feeling honored by the parents, he receives shock and anger. Wouldn’t he want to invite a positive interaction for all? Wouldn’t he want his clients to feel satisfied?  I’m sure he wants to feel valued and to be thanked wholeheartedly for his great work.

The student who shared this story with the class was quite passionate about the wrongness of the surgeon’s words. Apparently, the parents were devastated by them. I asked her what words the surgeon might have said that would have brought a better outcome. I can’t recall her answer exactly, but they went something like this:  “The surgery went really well. It will take a while for her to recover for she’s been through a lot, but she will heal beautifully, you will see.”

Of course, not all doctors communicate badly, but many do. What in their training could help?  Exposure to medical humanities. Bringing humanism into the equation and compassion into the discussion. Studying literature, for example, that helps professionals access their own vulnerability and confusion. Reading stories that reveal our shared humanity. When the hearts, heads, hands, and mouths of doctors work in synche, the outcome will be powerful. Until then, the wounding continues.

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What an incredible reading I participated in at Open Secret bookstore in San Rafael, California this past Saturday night. Some of us published in the anthology The Healing Art of Writing, Volume One read to a super  supportive audience. David Watts, one of the editors as well as a contributor, introduced the event, making everyone feel warmly welcomed. The book is beautiful and can be ordered online from the University of California Press, UC Press.

Here’s the description of the book from the back cover: “The pieces in The Healing Art of Writing: Volume One originated at the conference of this name that brought together caregivers and patients who share a passion for writing about the mysterious forces of illness and recovery. A belief shared among all contributors is that being cured of a disease is not the same as being healed, and that writing poetry and prose brings us to a place of healing. Our subject is the body, our medical experiences widely diverse, our goal to express through literature what happens when a physical or mental anguish disrupts our lives.”

I read a small section from the published excerpt of my memoir manuscript, The Autobiography of a Sea Creature. What a thrill to share my work with such loving listeners. Afterward, wonderful people spoke with me about what my story meant to them. One was a neonatologist who offered compassion and understanding about what I must have gone through as an infant. His words meant so much to me and in this conversation, I healed a little more from the early trauma. I asked him whether the neonatologists of today attend to babies’ pain and he assured me they do. Babies have a pain score, he told me, and these numbers are not only attended to constantly by the medical staff but are available to the family at all times. This information was reassuring.

A videographer from the University of California San Francisco Medical Center came up to me afterward saying, thank goodness medicine has changed and that the doctors he meets at UCSF treat patients as human beings. They would never talk to their patients the way that the surgeon spoke to my mother after my surgery, he said. I was glad to hear his words. This supportive conversation was healing as well.

Finally, I had the most amazing conversation with two women who are my sister survivors in so many ways. I don’t have permission to share their stories, but suffice it to say that our talk in the hour after the reading helped me emerge from my isolation as a survivor of infant surgery without anesthesia and feel part of a greater community of people trying to come to terms with their own early medical experiences or those of family members. Many of us are still unraveling the meaning of these events in our lives. Writing has brought us together and for this, I am grateful. Truly, writing is a healing art.

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Once again the students at the College of Alameda, where I have taught for the past fifteen years, have shown me how generous, compassionate, and understanding they are. In my English 1A Composition class, we study medical humanities for a few weeks and within this unit, students read my blog and complete this assignment: Read the first blogpost “Why Horseshoe Crabs?” in order to see why I started the blog 2 and 1/2 years ago. Then read four posts of your choice and complete the following written assignment: For each of the four posts, note title, date, why you chose it (title, drawing, photo, video, subject) and make a Comment (i.e. pretend you are commenting on the blog itself by writing a sentence or two, similar to commenting on Facebook).

I just finished reading my last batch of homework assignments, and I am very moved by the experience. Everyone reached out to try to understand; everyone was compassionate in their responses. I want to thank all of the  English 1A students for taking my work seriously and giving so much of themselves. One of the reasons community college students are wonderful to teach, I have found, is that they are so appreciative of any effort a teacher makes in sincerity to teach them. I have taught at several other institutions, two of them four-year colleges, and the students at the College of Alameda are the most gracious and generous. Their responses to myincision have again shown this to be true.

What’s also astounding is how much people can relate with my blog even if they haven’t had infant surgery or medical trauma. The healing aspect is what catches their eye–the focus on empowering oneself. We all want to grow and be the person we were meant to be, it seems to me, and thus myincision speaks to many on this level. Blogging is a powerful tool and can be used for so many different purposes. I hope the students take away some tools for self-understanding and even get inspired to start their own blogs about subjects important to them. Again, thank you CoA students!

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