Weekend Writing Retreat for Nurses/NYC

Here is a terrific writing retreat geared for nurses. I took a writing workshop this past April with Joy Jacobson and Jim Stubenrauch (at U of Iowa’s Examined Life conference) and can attest to the fact that they are wonderfully supportive teachers.

From the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College (CHMP) HealthCetera blog:
Weekend Writing Retreat for Nurses
by Jim Stubenrauch
If you’re a nurse who writes or one who wants to write, please join us for Telling Stories, Discovering Voice: A Writing Weekend for Nurses, to be held July 19-21, 2013 in New York City. This is a chance for all nurses and nursing students to strengthen and expand their capacity to write in a variety of modes and genres, including personal essays, poetry, and fiction, as well as blog posts and articles on clinical and health policy topics. We’ll write together in a safe and supportive environment, share our writing aloud, offer encouragement and constructive feedback, and discuss the role of narrative in medicine and nursing. We’ll also examine the potential for using social media as a public-health tool.

The conference will be led by CHMP poet-in-residence Joy Jacobson and senior fellow Jim Stubenrauch. This special event is co-sponsored by the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College (CHMP) and the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing, and is offered as part of the CHMP’s program in Narrative Writing for Health Care Professionals. Participants will receive 17 continuing education units.

We’re very excited that Karen Roush, clinical managing editor of the American Journal of Nursing and the founder of The Scholar’s Voice, will be the keynote speaker. Karen has extensive experience as a writer, teacher, and nurse and has published books, scholarly articles, personal essays, and poetry.

The price for the conference (including continental breakfast and lunch each day) is $675 + $20 registration fee until July 1; $725 + $20 fee after July 1. Groups of six or more from one institution receive a discount price of $575/person. Students receive a 20% discount. Register for the event online at https://ceweb.hunter.cuny.edu/cers/CourseBrowse.aspx. (In the “Search Courses” window at the upper left, enter course code SEMTSDV.) Or call 212 650-3850.

Want to know more? Check out these two blog posts about last summer’s workshop: in the first, attendee Patricia Wagner Dodson, BSN, RN, MA, CCRN wrote that “in this workshop community of real nurses and real writers, a consensus seemed to emerge: the stories need to be told. The workshop was the beginning of the telling.” In the second, I shared some of my own impressions of the weekend, with excerpts from pieces written during and after the workshop by two other participants, Karen Hardin, MS, RN and Amy Dixon, BSN, RN.

Where to Get Your Words Out

American Journal of Nursing
American Journal of Nursing (Photo credit: random letters)

Here are some specific resources for where to get published. This is primarily intended for writers of personal essays, short stories and poems dealing with health and health care-related issues. I’ve geared the list towards nurses, but all of the journals included here accept writing from any type of health care provider, as well as from patients and family members.

Remember to do your homework before submitting to any of these journals or blogs: follow their current submission guidelines and read their published content to make sure it is a good fit for your work.

Good general all-around resources for writing and publishing:

  • Duotrope. They have recently added a nonfiction category to their excellent searchable database of literary journals and magazines, as well as information on small presses open to book manuscript submissions.

Good resource for almost all things related to medical humanities (intersection of medicine/healthcare and creative work):


  • American Journal of Nursing. I’ve linked to their editorial manager page that has information for potential authors. Check out their Art of Nursing, Viewpoint, and Reflections sections as these are the ones accepting more creative types of writing. (They also pay a $150 honorarium for each published piece!).
  • Bellevue Literary Review/NYC Langone Medical Center. Excellent print publication. Highly selective and they can take up to six months to review a submission, so I don’t recommend them for first-time authors. But I highly recommend the journal for reading good narrative medicine type writing. They also have really cool archived historical photos from Bellevue Hospital, the oldest continuously running hospital in the U.S. (although Hurricane Sandy seriously affected their buildings and operation).
  • Creative Nonfiction. This print journal is highly selective, only includes creative/narrative nonfiction, and is not primarily geared towards health-related writing. But the editor, Lee Gutkind, has his heart in medical narratives.
  • Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine. “An online magazine that uses stories and poems from patients and health care professionals to talk honestly about giving and receiving medical care.” You can sign up to get a weekly short essay (800 word limit) or poem (they currently are closed to poetry submissions as they have too many to review).
  • The Examined Life Journal/University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. A relatively new (now biannual) print journal from the medical school linked with the most prestigious writing school in the country. This is where Abraham Verghese honed his writing skills. They have a new annual writing contest/deadline is January 10, 2013.

Blogs can be a good place to get started as a writer. Consider submitting to an existing group blog to have your work included as a guest blogger. An excellent one is HealthCetera at the Center for Health Media and Policy at Hunter College. Joy Jacobson, MFA (health care journalist and poet) and James Stubenrauch, MFA (writer and editor) are both Senior Fellows at the Center for Health Media and Policy, Hunter College School of Nursing. They both have worked as editors for the American Journal of Nursing. I ‘spoke’ with them via e-mail this past week and they wanted me to encourage my students (and other nurses) to consider submitting a guest blog post.

So no excuses! Get your words out and get them published.

Superstorm, Super Nurses, Super Inequality

New York City (Manhattan) from Ganrty Park aft...
New York City (Manhattan) from Ganrty Park after Hurricane Sandy (Photo credit: TenSafeFrogs)

Living in the Pacific Northwest with the return of our perpetual grey days and rain, I do not hear the same level of weather complaints as I usually do. In the wake (literal/multiple meanings) of the devastation of Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast, most people here are grateful for our relatively benign weather.

On Monday, when the storm was hitting Virginia, I called to check in on my elderly father, who is now mostly homebound in hospice. High winds and local flooding were affecting his town in Central Virginia, but he had two nurses with him when I called. One was the visiting home hospice nurse who was checking his health status and making sure he had his medications. The other was his caregiver, a retired Emergency Department nurse. She is a no-nonsense person who walks with a cane and has been known to wave it my father’s way when he forgets to take his medicines. Clearly my father was in capable hands. I could get on with my job of grading student papers. I know firsthand what an important role home nurses play in the daily lives of elderly people and their families. And especially so in times of natural disaster.

I was pleased to see the NYT article “Enduring the storm for homebound patients” by John Leland (11-1-12). He highlights the essential work of the 5,000 nurses, aides, and social workers through the NYC Visiting Nurse Service who have been out providing services to patients around the city during the storm. He quotes nurse Allison Chisholm as saying, “…it’s something you have to do as a nurse. (…) I don’t see this as being a hero. I have a conscience. I have to sleep at night.” Mr. Leland quotes an elderly male patient exclaiming how he can’t get over the nursing service. His home nurse seems to have climbed fourteen floors in the dark to change the dressings on his leg wounds. And this patient adds that he can see how expensive the home nursing care must be. (Presumably covered by Medicare). But Mr. Leland follows with a quote from another elderly patient (a non-retired social work professor) who says, “This service saves a fortune because we don’t have to be in hospitals. They don’t pay these people enough.”

Indeed, that was something that was bugging me about the coverage of Sandy that I have been receiving: not enough attention to the consequences of extreme economic inequities being played out. (The residents of lower Manhattan being referred to as “The Dark People” for one thing.) I am sure that altruism and duty have been major motivators for the visiting nurses, aides and social workers who have provided essential services to people across the socio-economic spectrum. But they—and especially the home health aides who make minimum wage or just above—depend on the income from their jobs to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their families. They simply cannot afford the luxury of taking the day off.

David Rohde wrote an article on this for The Atlantic. In “The hideous inequality exposed by Hurricane Sandy” (10-31-12) he points out that income inequality in Manhattan rivals parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and only Sierra Leon and Namibia have higher income gaps. I have walked the length of Manhattan many times, but until now had not realized how all of the major public hospitals are located in low-lying, flood-prone, power-outage areas.  The Manhattan skyline was forever changed with 9-11; the Manhattan skyline of light/dark, haves/have nots is perhaps forever burned into our national psyche. Now, to do something about it.

Back To School Nursing

Children washing their hands before lunch. Tak...
Children washing their hands before lunch. Taken at the Penasco school in Taos County, New Mexico, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

School nurses are an important—and often overlooked—part of our health care safety net. RNs at our nation’s schools handle medical emergencies, provide episodic and chronic care (including for the increasing number of children with Type II diabetes), track communicable diseases, connect children with needed insurance and health care providers, promote healthy behaviors, and screen for conditions that negatively affect learning—such as poor vision. They do all of these things mostly independently, while juggling sometimes competing and conflicting demands, rules, and laws of the educational and health care worlds. And now that Michelle Obama and the USDA have successfully added fruits and vegetables to school lunches, our school nurses are extra busy encouraging millions of school children to eat them. Some nurses must be responding to skeptical and creative students with, “No, you are probably not allergic to broccoli—only Justice Scalia is allergic to broccoli.” Given that the average school nurse in the U.S. is responsible for 1,151 students at 2.2 schools, school nurses are an important, overlooked, and overworked workforce.

Lina Rogers Struthers was the nation’s first school nurse. Part of Lillian Wald’s community nursing group, Struthers was employed by the school system of New York City in 1903. The year before she was hired a total of 10,567 children were excluded from NYC schools due to health reasons. The year after the introduction of the school nurse program only 1,101 students were excluded from school for health reasons.

On April 23, 2009 school nurse Mary Pappas in Queens, NY altered the local health department of an unusual outbreak of flu-like illness in her school. The CDC was called in to investigate and it was found to be the first documented outbreak of H1N1 influenza in the U.S., triggering a national response. This past spring in my home state of Washington, school nurse Becky Neff alerted state health officials of an outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough) in Skagit County, north of Seattle. Ms. Neff is the only registered nurse in her 3,700 student school district. (see NYT article “Cutbacks Hurt a State’s Response to Whooping Cough” 5-12-12, by Kirk Johnson) School nurses don’t just help keep students healthy: they help keep entire communities healthy. We need more of them.


Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Unlocking the Potential of School Nursing: Keeping Children Healthy, In School, Ready to Learn. August 2010

National Association of School Nurses (interview with Linda Davis-Aldritt, President NASN on preparation needed for being a school nurse)

CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health

Fun video clip about the work of Vermont school nurse Mandy Mayer, “I am a nurse, I am a leader” (won this year’s ANA award).

Of Flyswatters and Public Health Nursing

Earlier this month I was in NYC and stumbled upon an amazing exhibit “Activist New York” at the Museum of the City of New York (runs through the end of the summer). In between the Quakers and Gay Bob (the world’s first gay doll), was an entire section on Lillian Wald and the Henry Street Settlement. The overview placard reads:

“In 1893, two young nurses, Lillian D. Wald and Mary Brewster moved into a Lower East Side apartment to offer medical services to poor immigrants living in tenements nearby. Out of their initial effort grew two institutions, the Henry Street Settlement and its public nursing service, which later became the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. When Wald moved into 265 Henry Street in 1895, the city had a handful of settlement houses; by 1911 it would have at least 70. Wald became one of the nation’s most recognized social activists. Her urban nursing service helped create the field of public health nursing. Henry Street became a nerve center for causes ranging from labor arbitration to the abolition of child labor to racial integration and world disarmament (…) The activism of New York City’s settlement workers and visiting nurses thus helped to define social welfare and urban liberalism in 20th century America.”

I read this with great pride and wanted to jump up and down and tell everyone in the (quiet—it is a museum) room to come look at what nurses had done. Then I spied a strange arrangement of items in a glass-enclosed case, beside a life-sized statue of Lillian Wald. I looked closer and it was the (dreaded to me!) black leather bag of the public health nurse and a wooden collapsible flyswatter with Metropolitan Life Insurance written on it. The black bag I knew well from my own clinical rotation in public health nursing in a previous century. But a fly swatter?

Turns out that Lillian Wald formed a partnership with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, whereby they contracted with her visiting nurses to care for ailing policy holders in their homes—and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had a huge public health campaign against flies/contagion and tuberculosis and the visiting nurses gave out free fly swatters wherever they went.

Somehow this part of the story started to make me feel unsettled and I wondered if Lillian was a sell out to corporate America….

Still, I highly recommend this exhibit if you are in NYC this summer. Where else in the world can you find early Quakers and public health nurses and Gay Bob dolls all in one room?

More Babies! Nurse-Family Partnership

Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia

To continue the baby theme and to remind myself–and all of you–about the good stuff of life and of nursing, I want to highlight the Nurse-Family Partnership Program. As they state on their website, the Nurse-Family Partnership Program “is an evidence-based community healthcare program that empowers low-income, first-time mothers to become confident parents and strong women by partnering with nurse home visits.” Based on independent research, for every public health dollar a community invests in the Nurse-Family Partnership Program, the community gets at least five dollars in return from savings in social services, criminal justice and healthcare costs. The program has now been adopted by over 400 countries and 29 states in the US–and is growing due to its wide-spread appeal and proven cost-effectiveness.

I have the good fortune of working with two local nurses involved with the Nurse Family Partnership in SeattleKing County. It should come as no surprise that they are some of the happiest and seemingly healthiest most grounded of all nurses. They always make my day and remind me of the good stuff of nursing.

Here’s a link to my favorite video of the Nurse-Family Partnership–from New York City. Healthy happy babies and moms and nurses! What’s not to like?

OK–the puppies snuck in here and the kittens are close behind….

The Lovely, Beautiful Unbroken

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11...
Image via Wikipedia

This is the first in what will be an ongoing collection of book reviews on newish literary non-fiction books by nurses, books about nursing, or about health care or marginalized populations. I’ve been immersed in reading the classics, and have purposefully been avoiding reading any books remotely similar to the one I am writing. But now that I am nearing completion of my book, I don’t fear derivative contamination.

Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life by Mary Jane Nealon (Greywolf Press, 2011). A woman in my writing group recommended this book to me. Since our Shipping Group writer’s support group meets at Elliott Bay Book Company—a funky fun local independent bookstore—I promptly bought the book. When I looked at the cover—a photograph of a woman floating in water and the banner “Winner of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize”—I wanted to hate it. Out of pure jealousy. I was wait-listed for this year’s Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, which was being held the week I bought Nealon’s book. I didn’t get in, and Mary Jane not only got to go to the conference for free, she’d gotten her book published as well.

Being out of my teenage years, I swallowed my whining and jealous pride and read the book. Twice. I loved it. The book is a memoir, written in chronological order beginning from her childhood in Jersey City as a quirky Irish-Catholic girl who wanted to be either a saint or a nurse. From the book blurb on the back cover:

Beautiful Unbroken details Nealon’s life of caregiving, from her years as a flying nurse, untethered and free to follow friends and jobs from the Southwest to Savannah, to more somber years in New York City, treating men in a homeless shelter on the Bowery and working in the city’s first AIDs wards. In this compelling and revealing memoir, Nealon brings a poet’s sensitivity to bear on the hard truths of disease and recovery, life and death.

My paperback copy is dog-eared throughout. But the vast majority of turned down pages occur in Part Three of the book, when Nealon moves back to New Jersey to work in New York City with patients with cancer—then with AIDs. The first two parts of the book are somewhat necessary background, but I didn’t find them as interesting or compelling as the last part, when it also moves into her writing life. “I lived in medicine and poetry, and they were not enemies at all. They celebrated the synchronicity of discovery and hope, of desire and knowledge. I knew there were people all over the world who lived without poetry, but I didn’t know how.” (p. 143)

Nealon’s descriptions of the effects on her of the 9-11 NYC attacks, as well as of the life and death of her police officer father “Red,” are some of the most haunting in her book. Now there is another person to add to my list of favorite nurse writers, or writers who are nurses.

Why Iowa?

Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, facade de...
Image via Wikipedia

I have been asking myself this question for the past two days, ever since finding myself in the midst of cornfields and cows. I am at the University of Iowa’s narrative medicine conference “The Examined Life.” This conference seems to be grain-fed on the reputation of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. So many excellent writers have gone through this program. I envision a young Flannery O’Connor riding by train here from Georgia. But few if any writers were actually from Iowa and few if any stayed in Iowa. Now I know why.  I walked around ‘downtown’ Iowa City yesterday four times in the search of food. This is a drinking college town, as there are only bars. I hear from some current writers in the Writers’ Workshop that the pubs and writing go together. I stumbled into the one coffee shop I could find and it ended up being Prairie Lights, the town’s iconic independent bookstore. When I asked the bookstore staff member to direct me towards books by local authors, he looked at me blankly and then showed me to a table full of the birds and flowers of the Iowa prairies.

The conference itself is interesting in a low-key sort of way. Held at the medical school it is unsurprisingly dominated by physician-types, including many local medical students. As the building is attached to the hospital, some are wearing scrubs and/or white coats. The philosophers don’t seem to be here as they were in Seattle. Much of the talk is about cancer narratives and end of life and palliative care, and about how doctors don’t get enough training in how to talk to patients. The most interesting part of the conference so far was a reading and discussion by the writer Chris Offutt, who is a visiting professor teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The short story he read, “Out of the Woods” had a hospital and a dead body in it, so that was the connection to narrative medicine. He’s a great writer and with a theater background, does a wonderful job at reading his own work to a largish audience.

I have been thinking about how place affects the nature of writing and of any other creative endeavor, including the nurturing of narrative medicine. Even though Iowa City is home to the premier MFA writing program in the US, it does not have a creative spirit. Based on my informal street level culture index walkabout last night, this is not a creative place. I did not see any bohemians out and about, except for one lone Rastafarian young man, but he was outside of a smoke shop so must have been part of their advertisement. No street level coffee shops in which aspiring and real writers can go to hang out and work out their writer’s block in community. In fact, I was lugging my laptop around in hopes of being one of those coffee shop writers. Instead, I am writing this on the shiny vinyl floor, in a hallway of the Cancer Research Laboratory. Carts of large red biohazard bins keep rolling past me.

Narrative medicine in Manhattan, seemingly shared between Rita Charon and her colleagues at Columbia, and people at the NYU School of Medicine has more of a cerebral, sophisticated air to it, fitting with the culture of NYC. There is a budding narrative medicine culture in Seattle, fed off transplants from other places, but affected by the writing and creative culture of the city. Seattle—rainy, soggy, foggy, moody somewhat depressed over caffeinated introverted intelligent contrarian process-oriented full of causes and grand passions and changing the world idealist tree hugging serial killer—Seattle. Moss covered alternative healing modalities Seattle. Narrative medicine cannot help but be different in such a climate. I hope that in the PNW climate of inclusiveness, narrative medicine can become more than it is now in the rest of the country.

~addendum reflection after the Examined Life Conference: Iowa City began to cast its spell on me after three days of being there for the conference. The conference cast its spell as well. I am typically not a joiner-love-conferences sort of person, but I ended up attending all but one of the conference sessions. Since returning to Seattle I’ve been trying to figure out if that’s because there was nothing else to do in Iowa City, or if it is a positive reflection on the conference. I think it was the latter. I’ll be going back, and hopefully more nursing-types will join me there next year. A group of us from the conference, along with some PNW narrative medicine/advocacy people are beginning to plan a conference on narrative advocacy, to be held here in tree-hugging coffee-chugging Seattle–hopefully in another year or so, so stay tuned for that. And while you’re here, check out our independent bookstore Elliott Bay Book Company.