Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine

Reviewed By: Alysa Cummings
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: July 27, 2008

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Does poetry heal?

OncoLink - Healing Words Poetry and Medicine

To answer that question, the filmmakers take us into the Shands Hospital at the University of Florida and invite us to experience their Arts in Medicine program. The film features intimate scenes and images that resonate powerfully and linger long after the documentary ends.

We stand next to a dance therapist who uses music and gentle movement to help a teenager with sickle cell anemia cope with chronic pain. We watch poetry therapist John Fox quickly jot down words on a pad uttered by young girl from her hospital bed. She describes her cat, and moments later her thoughts translate into an instant poem that is celebrated by being spoken aloud right back to her.

We walk down the hospital’s hallways and peek up at colorful ceiling tiles painted by patients. We watch the careful installation of a healing wall, each tile representing a Shands patient on the path to recovery. We peek in on a writing seminar for medical students as they explore their feelings in words. We listen to poems written by experienced doctors, poems that tell the stories of patients, people they will never forget, individuals who they have tried to heal.

According to Healing Words, “A lot of poetry comes from wounds…and language carries us from illness and loss, to hope and understanding.” Shands Hospital is one of a small handful of hospitals exploring the so-called “art of medicine” by inviting artists-in-residence to work at bedside with patients, using music, movement, expressive writing and other artistic media to promote creative expression and healing.

At one point in the film, one doctor speaks about the positive effects of endorphins being released and later a neurologist shares his research on brain changes resulting from expressive encounters.

But the answer to the question, ‘does poetry heal’ is clearly written on the faces of the patients we meet in the documentary. They find relief from suffering by sharing their feelings, by writing down their fears, by describing memories, by making peace with factors beyond their control. The camera records their tears and catharsis, as well as the peace that comes with insight, acceptance and life lessons learned.

Check PBS.org for information regarding when Healing Words is scheduled to air on the PBS affiliate in your area. The film is also available for purchase ($24.95 shopPBS.org).



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