Healthcare workers find outlet in writing

Lydia Kang splits her time between practicing medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and writing. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
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March 7, 2015 - 8:35am

Healthcare workers, take care of people in all kinds of situations: routine checkups, surgeries, life-threatening illnesses and death. Taking care of people, in any kind of health, can be stressful. A writing workshop in Omaha offers healthcare workers an outlet to deal with stress through creative writing.


About seven years ago, one of Lydia Kang’s patients passed away. Kang is a general internal medicine physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center — she's the kind of doctor you see for checkups and referrals for specialists. She decided to attend her patient’s funeral, but she was really nervous about it.

“I had a lot of trouble letting go of it and I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote an essay about my interaction with this patient,” Kang said. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:

Hear Lydia Kang read an extended excerpt from her essay "The First Wake"

His wake and funeral were scheduled a few days later, but I felt lost and embarrassed by my inexperience. I had been given a task to care for Mr. D, what if my presence was not welcome at his wake? Perhaps his family would look at me askance and wonder, "Why didn’t she do more?"

Writing the essay was a relief. And Kang found she liked writing — a lot. She wanted to write more but wasn’t sure how to do it on her own. A few months later, Kang found out about a creative writing workshop called the Seven Doctors Project. It’s actually open to all healthcare workers. The first class of participants were seven doctors, and the name’s stuck ever since.

“This was basically the stepping stone that I needed ‘cause it was encouraging people in healthcare to write more, and I thought 'That’s me. I should try this!' So that’s kind of how it started,” Kang said.

The Seven Doctors Project is also designed to be therapy.

“You know what I think we’ve really provided them a bit of a relief. They’re working on, at least briefly, that other side of the brain for a while,” Steve Langan, the founder of Seven Doctors Project, explained.

Healthcare workers take care of people in all kinds of health: from minor injuries, to concussions and broken bones, to cancer and severe trauma. Jon Garrigan is a nurse anesthetist at Creighton University Medical Center, and he describes his job as one made up of a million small, but vital, tasks.

Jon Garrigan participated in the Seven Doctors Project two years ago. He still writes poetry and meets with some of his classmates for informal workshops. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)

“It’s a dynamic situation because you go from having a fully awake patient to a totally unconscious patient and somebody who’s not breathing. You have to be, obviously, on top of that. You’re taking away their breathing and you have that 37 seconds to get the tube in and breathe for ‘em,” Garrigan said.

Hospitals want to find ways to mitigate burnout in their employees, so they’re not understaffed at providing a very essential service. Langan started the Seven Doctors Project as part of his PhD research looking into creative writing as stress relief for healthcare workers. But back then he didn’t totally believe in the whole “writing as therapy” idea.

“If you would have talked to me 20 years ago, 10 years ago, maybe as this program as we started was being developed, I would have told you flat out that no, let’s not be ridiculous, there is no therapeutic element to writing.” But now? “Over the course of working with the participants, I’ve changed my mind a complete 180. When I see a spouse for instance of one of our participants, or a friend, they often will reflect on the difference that has been made because this person joined our workshop.”

In 2014 the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit that studies healthcare policy, reviewed more than 50 studies looking at how different stress relief methods affected healthcare workers. The review found at least some kind of mental or physical relaxation helped healthcare workers feel less stressed.

Many of Langan’s students use the workshop to write about their work experiences for the first time – like Kang did with her essays. Garrigan wrote mostly poetry. Here’s an excerpt:

Hear Jon Garrigan read "Break" in full:

Some thousands of details

The blur screams by

Life filling the cup
undocumented

I need my brain to survive
Pick up the pen

Break over

“I think the writing helps with the stresses that go along with that job. It’s relaxing, and it’s affirming,” Garrigan said. Many students continue writing after the workshop is over, and for Garrigan, writing has taken a new priority in his life.

Hear Lydia Kang read an excerpt from her second young adult book, Catalyst

And some participants have turned writing into part of their career, like Kang whose second young-adult book is being published this year. Even though it would seem more stressful to have a second job, Kang says it’s actually the opposite.

“It’s like every day, I’m always sort of keeping one foot on each side of the two careers that I have. It really is kind of good for my soul to be able to switch modes completely,” Kang said.


Want to know how Lydia Kang balances her two jobs? Listen below!

Music used in these stories is "Part 1" by Jahzzar / CC BY-SA 3.0

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