Community Resilience: Prepare for the Really Big One

DSC00963This week’s New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One”, about my beloved Pacific Northwest’s vulnerability to a devastating mega-earthquake and tsunami, has stirred a lot of debate and fear here in my hometown of Seattle. There’s been a run on the buying of ready-made disaster preparedness kits. Companies doing seismic retrofitting of houses are now booked out almost a year. As the article states, scientists report that we are overdue for a large or mega earthquake (9,0) and tsunami (100-ft) that will kill at least 13,000 people, injure 27,000, displace 1 million people, and destroy two-thirds of all hospitals. Everything west of Interstate 5 will be destroyed.

Currently, despite having the technology to install a sophisticated early-warning earthquake system, we don’t have one and we will have to rely on the “cacophony of barking dogs” to provide us with a 30-90 second warning before the ‘real quake’ hits. (Dogs can hear the high-frequency compression waves that precede an earthquake. Yet another reason to love dogs.)

It is clear that our government entities, businesses, hospitals, schools, fire departments, need to do much more to prepare for this disaster. As individuals we can support legislation to require better community-wide disaster preparedness (and support ways to actually fund these measures). As individuals we can heed the public health disaster preparedness advice and keep adequate disaster kits in our homes, school, and worksites. In a previous blog post titled “Be Very Afraid” (November 22, 2014) I wrote: “Or be at least a little bit afraid: not so afraid that you become paralyzed with fear and not so little afraid that you don’t do practical things to better prepare yourself (and your family) in case of disaster/emergency. Aim for being ‘just right’ afraid.” And I recorded the items I collected to make our family’s disaster/emergency preparedness kit–along with the realization that disaster preparedness is not an equal opportunity affair.

But something I have learned from my colleagues in New Zealand who work on post-Christchurch earthquake recovery efforts, is that an equally important part of disaster preparedness at the community level is promoting community resilience and wellbeing. More closely-knit communities–regardless of economic resources–tend to weather disasters better than others. Several of the Christchurch-area Maori marae (communal, sacred land/communities) organized to take in and provide food and shelter for foreign students and visitors affected by the earthquakes before any official government-sponsored program was able to do that. This isn’t to gloss over the very real socio-economic and racial disparities highlighted by ‘natural’ and man-made disasters. The lessons on this from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans stand as reminders.

I was somewhat skeptical when I first encountered these bright, up-with-people banners (shown in the photo above) I saw in the midst of the still fresh earthquake devastation in the downtown core of Christchurch in 2014. But as I focused more on their messages, I realized they were all about building individual and community resilience. They are part of the All Right? Campaign, a Healthy Christchurch initiative of the Canterbury District Health Board and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. They based their campaign on the work of the UK-based social, economic, and environmental justice think tank, The New Economic Foundation, which developed the evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing (with a Kiwi slant below). Now these are some excellent ways to prepare for the Big One.

  1. Connect… With the people around you. With whanau, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school, or in your local marae, church or community. Think of these connections/relationships as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.
  2. Be active… Exercising can make you feel good! Step outside. Go for a walk or run. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Have a boogie or do some kapahaka. The most important thing is to find a physical activity you enjoy that suits your mobility and fitness. Do it with friends or whanau and you’ll be ticking two boxes… connect and be active!
  3. Take notice… Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
  4. Keep learning… Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn Te Reo or how to play an instrument or cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.
  5. Give … Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, as linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you. Aroha ki te tangata, a Maori saying meaning respect for/goodwill towards others.

A Photo Ode to Harborview

This week I have been immersed in both the history and present state of the health care safety net in my home town of Seattle, especially as it is ’embodied’ (or ’em-building-bodied’) by Harborview Hospital/Medical Center.

Harborview is the largest hospital provider of charity care in Washington State. It serves as the only Level 1 adult and pediatric trauma and burn center, not only for Washington State, but also for Alaska, Montana, and Idaho, a landmass close to 250,000 square kilometers with a total population of ten million people. In addition, Harborview provides free, professional medical interpreter services in over 80 languages, and has the innovative Community House Calls Program, a nurse-run program providing cultural mediation and advocacy for the area’s growing refugee and immigrant populations.

Here is my photo–simple ode–to Harborview and its adjacent Harbor View Park:

Behold, the shining beacon on the hill,

IMG_3317 - Version 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rising from marshland’s King County Poor Farm,

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Stalwart Sisters of Providence did till,

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Shielding paupers, ill and homeless from harm;

Then, to separate church from state, we care,

‘Above the brightness of the sun: Service,’

Proclaimed the poster on opening day;

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Now, our common humanity declare

Responsibility to resurface,

Embrace compassion for all, we say.

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New Zealand Postcards: Cultural Safety: A Wee Way To Go

DSC01879 - Version 2DSC01418This week I had the good fortune of meeting with Denise Wilson, RN, PhD, a Maori New Zealand nurse and Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies here in Auckland. She talked about her work with cultural safety in New Zealand.

Like many indigenous peoples across the world–including our own in North America–Maori cultural conceptions of health and well-being tend to be much more holistic and less individualistic than mainstream Western ones. As Ms. Wilson explained, for most Maori patients she has worked with (clinically and in research), spirituality and connection with their land and extended family are the most important aspects of health. The Maori word for land, Whenua, also means placenta: it is what nourishes you. The history of colonialization, and being displaced from ancestral lands, have had profound negative effects on Maori health and well-being.

The term ‘cultural safety’ came from a Maori nursing student, Iriphapeti Ramsden (1946-2003), who in the early 1980’s stood up in class one day and asked something like, “We talk about patient safety, physical safety, and ethical safety, but what about cultural safety?” She was specifically referring to the difficulties Maori patients and their families (as well as Maori nursing students such as herslef) have within the Eurocentric health care system in New Zealand. These difficulties continue to contribute to New Zealand’s large health inequities and low representation of Maori nurses and other health care providers in the healthcare system. Ramsden went on to receive her PhD, developing the concept and practice of cultural safety. I discovered that Dr. Ramsden was part of the New Zealand feminist Spiral Collective, which ‘self-published’ Maori writer Keri Hulme’s book The Bone People after it was rejected by all major publishers. The Bone People, of course, went on to win the Man Booker Prize. One of my all-time favorite books, I assigned it as our New Zealand study abroad Common Book this quarter.

According to Denise, a culturally unsafe practice is “anything that diminishes, demeans, or disempowers the cultural identity and well-being of an individual.” A culturally safe or unsafe practice is determined by the patient and the patient’s family (another form of what we term in the U.S. ‘patient-centered care.’) Denise told me that a good ‘cultural safety’ question nurses can ask patients (and their family members) is, “What are things that are really important to you that we need to consider in your care?” Cultural safety includes an emphasis on self-reflection (and action) by the nurse in terms of understanding his or her own cultural and social attitudes that affect their care of patients and communities.

Cultural safety has been taught in New Zealand nursing programs for over twenty years. Since 1992 it has been a requirement for nursing and midwifery registration examinations. What started off as a bicultural focus (Maroi and Pakeha/non-Maori), has been expanded to include things like migrant status, gender/sexual orientation, socio-economic ‘class’ status, and disability. The concept of cultural safety has been adopted by regions in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Denise acknowledged the significant advances that have been made in New Zealand in terms of cultural safety, but she concluded with: “We do have a wee way to go.”

Cultural safety seems to have much in common with my favorite U.S. ‘cultural’ concept of cultural humility, which I have written about in a previous post. Cultural humility was developed as a concept by the African-American physician-nurse duo Tervalon and Murray-Garcia in their 1998 article, “Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education.” (Journal of the Poor and Underserved, 9(2) 117-125.) Since then, both the practice and concept of cultural humility have been further refined. Cultural humility emphasizes: 1) a commitment to lifelong learning and critical self-reflection, 2) recognizing and changing power imbalances, and 3) developing institutional accountability. Take a look at the excellent 30-minute video Cultural Humility: People, Principles and Practices by San Fransisco State professor Vivian Chavez.

Even closer to (my) home of Seattle, the historical roots and “remnants of our unresolved past” of racism and classism are powerfully presented in Shaun Scott’s short documentary A Really Nice Place to Live. In the film, Shaun Scott points out that Seattle is a byproduct of White Western Frontierism. He references historian Richard Drinnon’s work on the ‘Metaphysics of Indian-Hating,” where Drinnon asserts that all of American’s domestic and international race and class dynamics can be traced back to our original interactions with our ‘own’ Indigenous peoples.

We all have a wee way to go in terms of addressing and redressing the effects of racism and classism and all the other ‘isms’ of the world.

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The first photograph here is of the friendly and informative staff at the Alliance Health booth at Auckland’s annual Pasifika Festival, which I attended this past weekend. The staff members were promoting community awareness and prevention of rheumatic heart disease. New Zealand has the highest prevalence of rheumatic heart disease of all industrialized countries, and the highest rates are among Maori. It is a result of untreated ‘strep throat’ and is considered a disease of poverty. One of their community-led ‘interventions’ was the creation of Mama’s House as a culturally-appropriate way to engage the Pasifika community.  “Knowing that mothers, sisters and aunties are the first port of call about all matters relating to family health and well-being. After all, ‘Mama knows best’.” It also happened to be International Women’s Day. (And I also had just played ‘Mama-Nurse’ for some of my students who had developed penicillin- resistant strep throat, resulting in some ‘interesting’ interactions with the New Zealand healthcare system, which–like our own–has ‘a wee way to go.’)

The second photo is an interactive game show called “The Survivors,” part of the Maroi section of Wellington’s excellent Te Papa Museum exhibition Slice of Heaven: New Zealand’s Twentieth Century History. As this photo shows, one of the decisions you have to make while playing the game is whether you (as a Maori young woman in the 1970’s) went to the shorter/cheaper nurse aid program or to the longer/more expensive (and heavily Pakeha/’White European’) program to become a Registered Nurse. Guess which choice led to better outcomes, including lifespan for this woman?

New Zealand Postcards/ Disaster Preparedness: Lions and Tigers and Zombies and Earthquakes, Oh My!

DSC01509There are many things to worry about in this world. For instance, right now in my hometown of Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct is sagging a bit due to the large-scale drilling going on in the downtown area. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is built on ‘reclaimed land’ from Puget Sound that would most likely turn to liquefaction in our next earthquake (similar to what happened in the Christchurch earthquakes). But OK—state officials say it’s nothing to worry about.

As I write this post I am sitting on a ‘somewhat active’ series of volcanoes, on land that was covered in a hot mud eruption only ten years ago. Rotorua, on the North Island of New Zealand is a hot mess. The youth hostel we are staying in has fire action directions in each bedroom, but no information about what to do in case of an earthquake–or a volcanic eruption.

Disaster preparedness and effective disaster messaging are important components of public health. In the U.S., disaster preparedness communications specialists came up with the  Zombie Disaster Preparedness Campaign. Supposedly this campaign started out as a joke by a CDC communications specialist frustrated over the lack of public interest in their traditional disaster preparation information. But then the Zombie Campaign became so effective they’ve continued to use and expand upon it. This shows that with the ‘Chicken Little’ dire warnings of impending doom, a little levity can help.

Last week in Wellington, we talked with Sara McBride, a PhD candidate at Massey University at the Joint Center for Disaster Research. (The photo here is of the inside of their Emergency Operations Center where they coordinate disaster response for the university and conduct trainings). Her area of expertise is as a risk communicator, work which she was doing in Christchurch before the earthquakes. She told us that disaster communication is tricky because too much emphasis on doom and gloom results in people becoming fatalistic. Ms. McBride is currently doing research and work on earthquake/disaster preparedness and messaging in Washington State (where she grew up). As Professor Timothy Melbourne writes in his guest editorial in today’s Seattle Times, the Seattle area is at high risk for major earthquakes and tsunamis on the scale of those in Japan three years ago (“What Our Region Has Not Learned from the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, 2-25-14). He points out that Washington State needs an honest and transparent assessment of building safety (and other structures such as our dams and bridges). This is an excellent ‘health in all policies’ topic for nurses to get involved with.

Devilsih Dealings in Hospital Mergers

devilish latte
devilish latte (Photo credit: strikeseason)

Hospital mergers between faith-based (mainly Catholic) and secular healthcare systems are picking up speed and setting off more alarm bells across the country. Here in my home state of Washington–one of our nation’s most secular and socially progressive states–we are quickly becoming the state with the largest percentage of Catholic hospitals. If all of the pending hospital mergers go through, more than half of all hospital beds in Washington State will be in Catholic hospitals. How can this be?

In my previous blog post “God and Mary and Jesus are back….and Coming to a Hospital Near You” (February 27, 2012) I wrote about the concerns raised by the merger of Seattle-based secular Swedish Hospital with Seattle-based (Catholic) Providence Health and Services. As part of the merger deal Swedish Hospital dropped its abortion services. Since the merger, employees have reported they are not allowed to talk with or refer patients for pregnancy termination or give patients resources about our state’s Death with Dignity Act. There are also concerns voiced about the merger’s effect on access to and quality of health care for LGBTQ individuals.

My own physician is part of Swedish and I’ve had conversations with her about whether or not my end-of-life wishes/Advance Directives would be honored if I ended up in a Providence/Swedish hospital. I considered switching health care providers, but now most all in the Seattle area are affiliated with Catholic hospital systems. Even the University of Washington Medical Center is merging/affiliating with PeaceHealth, a large Catholic healthcare system. You have to wonder about these names. Who can argue (especially all of us Pacific Northwest hippies) with a name like PeaceHealth?

As I stated in my previous post– I am all for religious freedom. But I also believe that the separation of church and state goes both ways—not only protecting the
church/religion from the bully-power of the state, but also the state
(government and civil society) from the bully-power of the church.

The ACLU of Washington has taken up the issue of hospital mergers and hosted an excellent panel discussion last week on this topic at Town Hall, Seattle. You can hear a full recording of it here. The audience Q&A session was the most interesting part of it for me. Someone asked why no hospital administrators were on the panel. The answer from the organizers was that they wanted an educational forum and not a public debate–and that hospital administrators had ample resources and platforms already for voicing ‘their side’ of the issue. A woman asked what the ramifications will be for health science student education at University of Washington with the merger/affiliation with PeaceHealth. Two of the panelists were UW faculty members and one replied, laughingly, that they weren’t authorized to answer that question. How sad and how telling and oh how political health care is in our country.

Nurse Nancy Sells Pot In My Backyard

IMG_1089She doesn’t look like a pot-pusher, does she? Neither does she look like the Little Golden Book (1952) Nurse Nancy. And I doubt she looks much like the porn film’s Nurse Nancy.

Her nurse mug started showing up all over my neighborhood this summer, mainly stapled to every other utility pole as shown here. I knew we had a thriving medical marijuana market in Seattle since many of my young adult patients asked me for prescriptions (which I informed them they didn’t qualify for). I also knew that Washington State voters had approved I-502 legalizing marijuana in November 2012, and that our state officials were drafting rules/regulations for the legal production and sale of recreational marijuana. But that was all largely invisible and intangible to me before the Nurse Nancy signs appeared in my neighborhood.

Full disclosure: Although I am a firm believer in harm reduction, I voted against I-502 largely because I didn’t think it was a well-crafted voter initiative. Last fall they acknowledged that state officials would have to build the ‘seed-to-store pot system’ from the ground up within just one year. Admirably, state officials are on target to complete that work by December of this year. They have capped total pot production in our state next year at 40 metric tons. In our super environmentally-conscious region, there’s hot debate about sun-grown vs. greenhouse-grown pot. The carbon footprint of greenhouse grown pot is supposedly quite substantial. Governor Inslee nixed their plans to have the Washington State seal attached to all recreational marijuana sold in our state. We are the Evergreen State, but he decided that was taking it too far.

It turns out that the Seattle-based medical marijuana Nurse Nancy is a real nurse, with, as she states on her website, over thirty years experience as a nurse. She also touts hers as a family-owned and operated business that she runs with her two young adult sons (one who says he has celiac’s disease treated with medical marijuana). Mom-Nurse Nancy (if that is even her real name) supposedly is the one who packages the medical marijuana (in mason jars oh so reminiscent of the good ole’ moonshine days!). They currently carry four different varieties of medical cannabis with wonderful names: Purple Diesel, Purple Snapple, Emerald City (aka Seattle), and huh, Cheese?  I find it curious that her sons are the official ‘public face’ of Nurse Nancy. Her business appears to be legal and well-run and I don’t know of any state nurse licensing issues with what she is doing.

I am intrigued. Not by marijuana but by Nurse Nancy and this great social, political, and public health state-wide experiment that is our initiative to legalize marijuana. Recreational marijuana is due out next spring, at $10-12/gram, in 334 state-licensed pot stores. Medical marijuana will continue to be allowed to be distributed though home-delivery services such as Nurse Nancy.

A Place To Stop

 

Stop
Stop (Photo credit: Swamibu)

 

In our narrative medicine course we have moved into group presentations. On the first day of the quarter I had students sign up to be in one of eight groups to work on group projects and to do a group in-class presentation. I picked eight topics, using the list of topics (keywords) from NYU’s Literature, Arts, and Medicine
database
as a guide. The eight topics I chose this summer were: Aging, cancer, death/dying, disability, drug addiction, infectious disease, mental illness, and racism. The group assignment was to research and expand upon the topic resources listed in the NYU database—to approach this as if they were doing an in-service training on the topic at their work site. I asked them to produce a one-page (front and back) handout of their favorite resources, along with two to four possible in-class writing prompts and reflective questions. Each group was given 45 minutes to present on their topic and to lead the class in discussion and reflective writing. (Note: our class sessions are four hours long, although we don’t typically go quite that long).

This past week the first two groups did their presentations (on aging and cancer) and both did an excellent job. The groups used an interactive PPT presentation, weaving in poetry, prose, artwork, comic books, YouTube videos, and movie clips. I was impressed by the range and depth of their presentations and class discussions, as well as their application of the close read drill adapted from Dr. Rita Charon’s work. Group members also shared some of their personal stories related to their health topic and did this in a moving but professional way.

 

When I was planning this narrative medicine summer course, I was resistant to the idea of building in group projects. As a student I always preferred to have individual assignments since I could then control the time commitment and the outcome. I knew that the majority of my students in this course would be busy with their nursing jobs and families as well as with school. But a colleague convinced me to use group projects, saying the students were used to them and that what they came up with was typically of high quality. I have purposefully allowed time at the end of each class session for students to meet in their groups for planning purposes and I stay around to answer any questions that may arise. Some groups have also set up online discussion boards on our course website to facilitate their group planning. (In my mind, this is the only really useful function of online discussion boards.) That seems to have worked well for them so they don’t have to meet in person outside of class.

 

Two things particularly struck me from the in-class presentations and discussions. One was the number of students who had personal experience with either a close friend or family member or a patient who was given a diagnosis of a serious cancer over the phone or in a voicemail message. We talked about how insensitive that is and what nurses can do to influence physicians, nurse practitioners, and other healthcare providers to think through how to give bad news in a more supportive way. The other thing that stood out to me in the class discussion was a comment a student made that this narrative medicine class is “A place to stop and to process these things we don’t get to process.” Other students said they agreed with what she said and talked about how nurses are so much into the care giving role, not only at work but also in their personal lives, that having a time and space to stop and reflect on how it is affecting them is a powerful thing.

 

Ah yes. There were really three things that struck me during last week’s class session. The third was that this is all heavy stuff to process and write about and how much environmental context matters—as in the actual physical classroom setting. We have a nice smallish amphitheater classroom with excellent acoustics, state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment that is easy to use, reasonably comfortable chairs and tables, and a full bank of windows looking out over a grassy marsh full of birds. I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to teach in a classroom with windows. It also helps that it is one of the loveliest summers in Seattle’s history. Teaching this narrative medicine course in a windowless classroom in the middle of a Seattle winter would have a much different feel.

 

 

Of Poems, Hearts, and Hands

hand.
hand. (Photo credit: bambola_world)

Last week in my narrative medicine course I had two local authors come to class to read some of their writing and lead class discussions. The first guest speaker was Suzanne Edison, a poet and psychotherapist. She also leads Seattle-area workshops
on therapeutic poetry writing with parents of children with chronic illness, as well as with adolescents with chronic illness—at Seattle Children’s Hospital
and at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. Suzanne read poems from her two poetry chapbooks Tattooed With Flowers (2009) and What Cannot Be Swallowed (2012).  In our first class session this quarter we had done a close reading of her powerful poem “Teeter Totter.” Students had questions about some of the metaphors and lines in her poem, so last week they were able to ask Suzanne about them directly. (“Teeter Totter” also appeared in Ars Medica, Fall 2009).

Suzanne led the class in a poetry-writing session that she has developed. First, she asked students to write about a time they had an interpersonal conflict of some sort. Then they went through their prose piece and circled four to five words that stood out to them. Suzanne had them do some other tasks in order to come up with an expanded list of words (a dozen or so). Finally, Suzanne asked them to write a poem (in any form) using all of their words. Several students wanted to share part of or the entire poem they had written, and one student commented on how powerful it was to ‘get it out there.’ Students pointed out that reliving the stressful, difficult interpersonal interactions through the poetry exercise brought on stress responses (sweaty palms or changes in heartbeat and breathing), but that writing the actual poem gave them some distance from it and left them feeling more peaceful. Suzanne explained that the poem is a way to create a container for these powerful memories and emotions. One student wrote of this
as “framing the event in the bubble of a poem.”

I prefaced this poetry-writing exercise by letting the students know that what
they wrote was for their eyes only—that I would not ask them to turn in this
writing to me. Suzanne and I had incorporated the same writing exercise last
fall in my undergraduate community health course, when I did ask students to turn in their poems to me. I got feedback from some students that they found this to be intrusive into their personal lives when they didn’t really know me. Duly noted, and very true since it was a class of 150 students (vs. 40 students in the narrative medicine course). So this time around I set the parameters upfront that they wouldn’t have to share their poems with me. Instead, the first writing prompt I gave them for in-class writing was to share a fragment of their poem, or a key word, and to reflect on what surprised them most about what came out of the poetry exercise. This seemed to work out much better. It probably also helped that this class is specifically on narrative medicine, and students expect to do more creative and personal writing in it than they typically do in a more traditional nursing course.

The second guest author was Mary Oak, author of Heart’s Oratorio: One Woman’s Journey Through Love, Death and Modern Medicine (Goldenstone Press, 2013). (see my previous post/book review “Heart’s Oratorio” from 3-24-13). She read passages from her book and answered student questions. As one of the selections she read was about her stay in the ICU and how disorienting it was, students had questions for her about this. They also asked her what motivated her to write the book and about her development as a writer. Since Mary writes about her genetic heart condition and is a mother, students also asked what the ramifications are for her children, and what that feels like now that’s she’s lived through serious cardiac complications. Much of Mary’s book is set in Seattle and she mentions specific hospitals (Northwest Hospital and University
of Washington Medical Center) and some medical personnel by name. This led to an interesting class discussion on the ethics and legalities of nonfiction medical-related writing. Several students mentioned recent ‘compliance trainings’ they’ve had to go through in their jobs as RNs in Seattle-area hospitals, where the message was that ‘they could never ever write about their work in any context whatsoever!’ They were concerned since they were asked to write about their work for class assignments (like for my course). We reviewed the basic parameters on this for academic writing: 1) no patient identifiers such as name, age, super-rare medical condition, etc.; and, 2) no specific names of providers, hospitals, clinics, care facilities—although I acknowledged this can lead to strange permutations, such as “a large Level-I Trauma Center in the Seattle area” (there is only one Level-1 trauma center in Washington State—in fact within a four state radius—and that would be Harborview Medical Center). And then I briefly discussed various legal and ethical parameters as designated by specific journals, differentiating what I was asking them to write about versus writing for publication. I got on my soapbox briefly to rant about how hospital administrators try hard to intimidate nurses (and others even lower in the food-chain) into not writing about their work—but the intimidation is real and nurses can and do lose their jobs over this stuff—and it is easy for me to rant from the relative security of my tenured academic soapbox.

Back off my soapbox, Mary read them a lovely poem by a nurse poet friend of hers, Lise Kunkel, who works in hospice nursing in New York State. The poem had to do with her hands while caring for a hospice patient. So for my last writing prompt I had students think of a significant patient-nurse interaction they had had and to write it from the perspective of their hands: Tell the story your hands could tell. Since I was really stuck back on my soapbox and hadn’t thought through the specific writing prompts I wanted to use for that class session, this one was completely made-up on the spot. I had no idea what students would do with it until I read through their writing this week.

Wow—just wow! That prompt worked, as nurses most definitely identify and
communicate with their hands. Some students wrote from the perspective of their hands: the punishing abuse from the frequent application of hand sanitizer; the uncertainty of where to place their hands during certain patient-nurse or healthcare team interactions; the patient assessment of skin warmth or clamminess or bulges where there shouldn’t be bulges—and, as one student stated, providing “a loving touch, not a medical touch.”

Addendum: I received an e-mail from hospice nurse Lise Kunkel with a link to one of her published poems, “Reading Aloud to Dad (for Jiggs)” in Oncology Times, 3-10-09, vol 31(5),p. 34. She also told me the name of the poem that Mary Oak read to my class last week: “The Hands of a Hospice Nurse.” She uses some of her poems in trainings she does for hospice volunteers through the Care for the Dying Cooperative in NY State. Lucky volunteers and lucky patients….

A Patient Named Noname

IMG_0787I once had a patient named Noname. She was a thin wisp of a young woman who came to the community health clinic where I worked as a nurse practitioner. This was back in the late 1990’s soon after I had moved to Seattle from the East Coast. I was still having a bit of culture shock, getting acclimated to Seattle’s rain, tree-huggers, and serial killers. When I first met Noname I was dating a man who was a tree-hugger but thankfully was not a serial killer. He was way into natural food and meditation, so I had Namaste continually playing in my head like an annoying Bee Gees song. So when I looked at the new patient name ‘Noname’ on the patient chart and entered the exam room, I greeted her as Noname, pronouncing it as if she were a cousin of Namaste. She laughed nervously and corrected me: her name was no name. As in she didn’t want to give her real name, so it was just a placeholder of sorts. It wasn’t as if she was in clinic that day for any sort of health complaint that would make her concerned for her privacy. I never did get the story of her name, of her no name.

I remembered Noname this past week as I began teaching an eight-week Narrative Medicine course at the University of Washington, Bothell. I have close to 45 wonderfully smart and creative nursing students, all in their BSN-completion program. That means they all have their RN either from diploma or community college programs and are back to take the courses necessary for their BSN. They are all working full or part-time as nurses so they have a lot of ‘real life’ experience to draw upon.For the first in-class writing prompt I used one of my favorites learned from Dr. Rita Charon and her colleagues at Columbia University’s Program in Narrative Medicine: Write the story of your name. Everyone has rich stories to tell about their names—including the patient named Noname. I find this writing prompt to be an excellent starter prompt, as well as a way of allowing people to introduce themselves in a unique way. Of course, with 45 people in class we didn’t have time for everyone to read their stories out loud, but I have had the privilege of reading all of them and it helps me to get to know the class. I pointed out that this writing prompt can even be used effectively with patients. For instance, I’ve found that it is so much better to ask a patient (with a strange to me name), “Can you tell me the story of your name?” versus the usual “What country are you from?”

After presenting them with some basics of Narrative Medicine—what it is, where it came from, Dr. Charon’s approach to close reading—we practiced close reading together using a variety of short pieces of poetry and prose and film clips. The poetry I used was from Cortney Davis (I Want to Work in a Hospital), Raymond Carver (What the Doctor Said), Rachel Haddad (Stereotactic Biopsy), and Suzanne Edison (Teeter Totter). For the film narrative/close reading I showed them clips from the movie Magnolia (1999)—specifically two clips that are available on YouTube. One clip is the regret deathbed soliloquy by Earl Partridge (played to perfection by Jason Robards), and the second clip is of the male hospice nurse (played also to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman) on the phone trying to track down Earl’s estranged son (played—OK—also to perfection—by Tom Cruise). I love these two clips because they portray hospice care and hospice nursing so truthfully. They lent themselves to some rich class discussion and close reading skill building.

For the last in-class close reading and writing exercise I turned to writing by one of my favorite local authors, Judith Kitchen (Distance and Direction/ Coffee House Press, 2001); Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate/ Coffee House Press, 2013). I used her sample short essay F-Stop, which is surprisingly complex for such a short prose piece (available on her website). We first did a close reading of this essay. Then I showed them a photograph of a man reading to three small children around a campfire. I asked them to write the story of this photograph—to just make one up—thus pushing (or pulling?) them into the realm of fiction writing. I could tell that many of the students struggled more with this writing prompt. Some told me they had never been asked to write fiction before in nursing school. But they persevered and came up with some wonderfully rich stories.

I’ll be writing a series of posts over the next seven weeks of this Narrative
Medicine (for nursing) course. Since Narrative Medicine isn’t ‘done’ very much in nursing schools—and I think it should be—my hope is to share my experiences with others who may adapt it for their own teaching.

Shocking News: Nurses Can (and do) Read and Write

Who would have thought the world would come to this? A world in which there are IMG_1009so many nurses who are not only reading real books, but also writing real books, or essays, or poems, or short stories—so many nurses with the audacity (and ability) to obtain writing credentials, MFAs, writing certificates, and bona fide publications in non-nursing literary magazines and anthologies for God’s sake! Shocking indeed.

That was one of the main takeaway messages I got this week from listening to a podcast interview with Lee Gutkind on RN.FM radio. Lee Gutkind is the founder and editor of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction; he is also the editor of the recently published anthology I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, edited by Lee Gutkind (In Fact Books, 2013).

In the radio interview, Gutkind states that the anthology was something he had wanted to do for a long time. Whenever he pitched the book idea to publishers they rejected it, saying it was a bad idea because nurses don’t write and nurses don’t read. So with the support of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation he published it himself under the new imprint of the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Gutkind admits that he was surprised by the volume of submissions to the anthology, that the submissions “were so much better than we expected,” and “how many had writing degrees, writing experiences, as well as being nurses—it was encouraging to us.”  

The book was first released in early April, quickly sold out, and is now into its third printing. (Amazon says it is out of stock/due in 1-3 months but they should have it in stock much sooner than that. Elliott Bay Book Company has the book in stock and can ship it to you. They hosted our reading of the book this week/is what photo is of). Jane Gross, in her May 20th NYT book review Semi-invisible’ Sources of Strength, wrote of the anthology:

It is beautifully wrought, but more significantly a reminder that these “semi-invisible” people, as Lee Gutkind calls them in this new book, are now the “indispensable and anchoring element of our health care system.”

I would argue that nurses always have been the ‘indispensable and anchoring element in our health care system’ and that most laypersons have long recognized this fact. Perhaps what is different now is that people higher up in the rigid health care system hierarchy are being forced to recognize this. The forces contributing to this shift are fascinating and complex, but have to include the growing proportion of BSN prepared nurses in our country’s workforce. Both Jane Gross and Canadian nurse author Tilda Shalof (whose essay Ms. Gross quotes from) are dating themselves by focusing on the outdated rift between diploma/Associate’s degree (ADN) and four-year university-educated nurses in tertiary care settings. Ladies: in the U.S. that battle is over. As the authors of the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health report states:

The formal education associated with obtaining the BSN is desirable for a variety of reasons, including ensuring that the next generation of nurses will master more than basic knowledge of patient care, providing a stronger foundation for the expansion of nursing science, and imparting the tools nurses need to be effective change agents and to adapt to evolving models of care. (p. 4-9)

Currently, 50% of the U.S. nursing workforce are BSN prepared; the Future of Nursing report has set the goal to increase that to 80% by 2020. What a BSN education includes that an ADN education does not, are grounding in liberal arts (including literature and writing), leadership development, and public health/health policy competencies (more complex systems-level thinking)—all essential ingredients for more nurses to be readers, writers, and change agents in our health care system.

Something that I found disturbing in the radio interview and discussion was how much the two nurse radio hosts stayed stuck in the tiresome tropes of  “nurses as an oppressed profession,” (and specifically that they are oppressed by physicians) and that nurses “empower patients.” “Empowering” someone else is a slippery slope ethically and even practically, and nurses are not the only members of the healthcare team to advocate for patients. As to nurses being oppressed—oppression is understood to mean the unjust or cruel exercise of power. Yes, there are still ‘unjust cultures’ within hospitals that negatively impact nurses (as in the case of Kim Hiatt here in Seattle), but to extrapolate that to the statement that all nurses are oppressed is not only incorrect, it is unhelpful. Unhelpful to the image of nursing and unhelpful to the improvement of our health care system.

 

One of the radio hosts recommended that Gutkind offer a nurse writer conference—as a way to bring nurse writers together, to foster a community of nurse writers. Gutkind replied by encouraging listeners to e-mail him if they are interested in such a conference (information@creativenonfiction.org or under ‘contact form’ at www.Leegutkind.com).