Here is the introduction to my booklet about writing with patients and families at the UCSF Mt. Zion Comprehensive Cancer Hospital.
The first time I stepped into the halls of the UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion as an Art for Recovery intern in 2006, I was overwhelmed with feelings—fear that I wouldn’t be able to help anyone, worry that I would be intimidated by the amount of raw suffering I would encounter, and concern that I would say or do the wrong thing.
What I encountered was a lot of love. Sometimes this level of illness and suffering brings with it an openness and intensity that allows people who want to, to unlock their hearts and let strangers in. And then you are no longer strangers.
That’s how I got the idea for the project that has turned into this small book—to sit in waiting rooms and ask people to tell me what was on their minds, to listen, and write down the things they said. I also set up several bulletin boards, three in the hospital, and one in the Ida Friend Outpatient Infusion Center waiting room, where people, patients, family, friends, and staff could write down their thoughts and feelings in response to a poem or a prompt. The great majority of what is in this book came from the bulletin boards. As I listened and observed, I also wrote poems, as a way to capture the feelings and thoughts in my own heart. For me, a big believer in the mind-body connection, that’s what healing is about.
As you read these pages, I hope you will think of those you might see on the street or meet as friends who have been through a life-changing illness, those who may be very ill and not even look all that sick, or those who may have the tell-tale signs of progressing cancer. I hope you will think of the nurses and doctors who fight the battle with them, and who do their best to set the tone for the healing atmosphere inside the hospital. As said on one of the bulletin boards, Soak up the good energy here! You can feel it all around. Know that someone cares even if you don’t know them. And of course, I hope you will take something away for yourself, and maybe even write about it! The backs of the pages were kept clean and empty to offer you a space to write or draw.
A writing prompt is the beginning of a sentence or phrase that is meant to be completed. You will note as you begin this book, that it is organized with writing prompts at the top of the page followed by participants’ written responses. I have interspersed my own poems written as a reaction to what I experienced in the waiting rooms. I have also included handwritten clips from the actual bulletin boards. My photographs will, I hope, complement the writing.
All the writing except mine is anonymous, and that has helped with the spontaneity of the responses. Any names used in this booklet have been changed or shortened.
Phyllis Klein, LCSW, Art for Recovery Intern
An Art for Recovery© UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center Project
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