The Healing Power of Writing
Patients and their families at Duke and other medical
centers are taking part in writing programs to help them cope
with the stress of prolonged hospitalization.
Advanced technologies and treatments are transforming
contemporary medical care. But many patients also find physical
and emotional relief through a healthy dose of
A growing number of medical centers now offer art, music and
writing programs designed to help patients and their families
cope with the stress and strain of extended hospitalization.
Duke University Medical Center was one of the pioneers in this
effort and today offers a wide range of support services to
Grey Brown, literary arts coordinator for the Health Arts
Network at Duke, said one of their most successful initiatives
is a journaling program called "Write for You."
"We procure journals and give them to patients and family
members to help them write to reduce stress and promote healing
during their stay here," she said.
"The best-known studies in this field are by James
Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of
Texas. Several studies looked at patients' blood pressure,
heart rate and immune system responses before and after
writing. Writing about traumatic events especially seems to
have a positive effect on symptoms. It's been documented in
studies of rheumatoid arthritis patients and also with asthma
In addition to journal-keeping, Duke offers several other
programs to promote health through writing and reading:
Volunteer readers are available to read storybooks to
pediatric patients. They might read the newspaper or the Bible
to adult patients.
A poetry competition is open to patients, visitors and
hospital staff. Brown's group publishes a book of the entries,
which is given out so patients can read poems by their fellow
patients, as well as by their physicians and their nurses.
A literary discussion group, open to all and often featuring
guest authors, meets on Fridays. Brown said it's become "a
literary oasis during the work week" for many at Duke.
An international organization, the Society for the Arts in Health
Care, works to promote cultural programs in health care
settings. Many hospitals all across the nation, as well as in
Europe and Japan, sponsor arts in health care programs, and
many have literary arts as part of their offerings.
Making journals available to patients who are hospitalized
for a prolonged period can bring about some remarkable results,
according to Brown.
"I remember one little boy in the hospital who hadn't been
home in 13 months. When I walked into his room, he was in a
fetal position, coughing and unable to catch his breath.
"He and I started writing poetry and he wrote about his
home. As he wrote, he began to sit up, to mimic the sounds of
the wild turkeys around his home. Before you know it, he was
breathing more freely, he was alert, he was happy. As I left
the room, he asked for a piece of paper so he could write more
and draw a picture. That was a transformation."