A Writer Taps The Power Of Narrative At A Massachusetts Hospital

Apr 25, 2020
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hospitals are real-life settings for human drama with thousands of stories. Massachusetts General Hospital has a writer in residence to encourage writing and reading. And Dr. Suzanne Koven says that the interest from hospital staff is now greater than ever. We're joined now by Dr. Suzanne Koven, who was a writer and a physician with Mass General for more than 25 years. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

SUZANNE KOVEN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And what does a writer in residence do at a hospital?

KOVEN: It's a fairly unique role in my hospital because my focus is primarily on the staff. So I do a lot of writing, coaching, mentoring and editing. And I run reading and writing groups and also organize literary events, poetry readings and so forth.

SIMON: Is the idea to encourage reflection and to say to them, look; you're going through weighty experiences; this is one way of getting your emotions around them?

KOVEN: Yeah, I think that's actually a good way of putting it. Health care workers are exposed to a lot of human stories - probably more than the average person. And yet, because of the restrictions of time and confidentiality, we can't share those stories too much. Reading, writing, particularly looking at literature together provides a different kind of window into the human condition, which we're steeped in so much day to day in our work.

SIMON: You have a poem that you favor, I gather, by William Carlos Williams, who was, of course, also a doctor. Here's a reading of his poem "Complaint."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED READER: (Reading) They call me, and I go. It is a frozen road past midnight, a dust of snow caught in the rigid wheel tracks. The door opens. I smile, enter and shake off the cold. Here is a great woman on her side in the bed. She is sick, perhaps vomiting, perhaps laboring to give birth to a 10th child. Joy. Joy. Night is a room darkened for lovers. Through the jalousies, the sun has sent one gold needle. I pick the hair from her eyes and watch her misery with compassion.

SIMON: My gosh, those final lines - and watch her misery with compassion. What does this poem let doctors and health care workers at Mass General talk about and open up inside themselves?

KOVEN: To me, what this is about is this physician's sense of what, in this case, his duty is. And at the very end, having gone all the way to thinking of the sick room as being darkened as for lovers and the golden needle - needle, of course, being a medical term and here being a needle of sunlight, so really complicating our sense of what the medical role is - he finally seems to land where he needs to be - a witness, a companion to suffering. And I think that health care workers I've read this poem with very much recognize themselves in it.

SIMON: I think people listening to us will point out that doctors don't get any time to talk to patients these days. They always have to be, you know, typing into a laptop. How do you have that bond of trust exist between a physician and a patient now?

KOVEN: I think that reflection, such as that we do in these reading and writing groups, really helps connect us to the deepest meaning of our work. And the truth of the matter is that if we're entering data on a computer and not looking at a patient, we're not watching anybody's misery, or joy, for that matter, with compassion. And so I find that reading poems remind us of what our calling is and what actually gives us the greatest joy. And, of course, there are practical constraints. But I think many of us and, in fact, even many right now on the front lines - there's so many stories coming out of people in goggles and masks who are still able to have intimate interactions with patients and their families at absolutely the most difficult time.

SIMON: Dr. Suzanne Koven is Massachusetts General Hospital's inaugural writer in residence. Her book "Letter To A Young Female Physician" comes out next year. Dr. Koven, thanks so much for being with us.

KOVEN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.