Poets help patients find their voices

Each week, poets Ann Teplick and Sierra Nelson arm patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital with a notepad, pen and thought-provoking prompts to help them discover the power, and therapeutic nature, of the written word. Some patients use writing to share their story or process difficult emotions, while others use it to ignite their imagination and go to another place, remembering their life and who they are beyond the hospital walls.

“I approach children and teens by telling them they have important things to say, and that the world needs their stories,” said Teplick. “I ask them if they agree, and time and time again, they reply ‘Yes.’ I then invite them to write from the heart and share something about who they are as a person.”

Teplick and Nelson work with Seattle Children’s patients through the Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, which sends professional writers into schools to help students discover and develop their writing ability. About five years ago, WITS added Seattle Children’s as its only non-public school site.

Sparking creativity

WITS poets Sierra Nelson (left) and Ann Teplick.
WITS poets Sierra Nelson (left) and Ann Teplick.

Teplick meets with small groups in Seattle Children’s School Room, and one-on-one with patients in the Dialysis Unit, the Rehabilitation Medicine Unit, the Cancer Unit and the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit. Nelson works closely with the Pediatric Advanced Care Team (PACT) and spends her time one-on-one with children and teens in the Cancer Unit and other inpatient units in the hospital.

To spark creativity, Nelson and Teplick use prompts like poems, phrases, music, art or colors. They work with some patients for weeks or months, while others, they may meet only once.

Nelson laughs as she says she sometimes feels like a “door-to-door salesman of poetry,” coming to patient rooms to see if they’d like to write, but it’s a very rewarding experience.

“Sessions can range from silly to serious, but the goal is to give patients a way to be playful and imaginative, or allow them to grapple with a difficult situation or feelings. It’s a thrill to spark something and then see where they go with it. I’ve seen patients transform in one session where they may be resistant to writing at first, but by the end, they say ‘I didn’t think I had that in me,’ amazing themselves with the power of their own words.”

In the school room, Teplick creates a syllabus and has patients write about a different theme each week, such as trust, family, home, fear, etc. She also does different activities where patients may write letters to the people they love or to their emotions (i.e. dear anger, this is what I need to tell you).

“I view myself as a facilitator of writing experiments, where anything goes, and where fun and creativity are the name of the game,” Teplick said. “Art is transforming and my goal is to pass on the torch of poetry as a tool of self-expression.”

The power of poetry in the hospital

The PACT team, which works to enhance patients’ quality of life, first brought WITS to Seattle Children’s in order to provide patients with an outlet for sharing their stories, as well as a tool for coping and self exploration. The program was a success and later expanded into the school room and other units.

“You don’t have to look hard to see the benefits,” said Julie Arguez, a member of the PACT team. “I’ve heard one patient say it helped save her life. It helped another patient transform from being shut down to ultimately finding strength in her voice, and in other cases it can provide a beautiful legacy for families whose child passes away from illness.”

Arguez says that in many cases it also helps patients discover or develop the writer within them.

“When you show a child what they are capable of, they can become something they never dreamed of,” she said. “They aren’t just a kid who wrote a poem, they are a poet and that lasts forever.”

For 24-year-old William Harper who was treated at Seattle Children’s when he was 20 for acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), working with Nelson through the WITS program helped him cope with his experience.

“As a cancer patient, crazy things are happening around you all the time. But writing helped me get my thoughts out and process my emotions,” he said. “It also provided a much needed distraction and made my experience more clear.”

Each year, WITS works with local artists through the School of Visual Concepts to create letterpress art for selected student poems that are put together in a portfolio. Harper had the opportunity to write the introduction for one of these portfolios for the 2011-2012 year, in a piece he created during his treatment called, “What Writing Means to Me.” Here is an excerpt:

“…It [writing] became a written record of my miracles, written down without filters as pure, uninterrupted feeling…It’s a way to feel euphoric, hopeful, angry, lost, and above all, alive. Writing brings sense to things that make no sense at all. It brings life to me and you and the people whose voices only we can hear. It is honest. It is a way to give thanks. And for me, it is one of the things that make the cancer fight absolutely worth it.”

Each year, WITS works with local artists to create letterpress art for selected student poems.
Each year, WITS works with local artists to create letterpress art for selected student poems.

Brian Ross, manager of educational services at Seattle Children’s who brought WITS into the school room, says it’s also about recognizing that patients are people first, and to give them a way to normalize their experience. He says the program is vital and is very unique in a hospital setting.

Poetry Awareness Month

With all these creative juices flowing through the hospital thanks to the WITS program, this year, Ross along with National Student Poet, Nathan Cummings, came up with a unique way to celebrate Poetry Awareness Month. They put up six posters in public areas of the hospital and invited patients and families to write based on four different prompts, which include, “My story begins with,” “This is what comforts me,” “Spring brings me,” and “If I were a plant or animal I’d be…”

Well, the posters were a hit and are full of unique expressions. Today, from 12 – 1 p.m. in the cafeteria, Teplick, Nelson, Cummings and Washington State poet laureate Elizabeth Austen will be turning the expressions from each poster into a poem that they will read. Patients involved in the WITS program have also been invited to present their work at the event as well.

Watch the video below to see how poetry created through the WITS program helped Roarin’ Lauren, a 13-year-old roller derby enthusiast, get back on her skates after battling cancer.

If you’re interested in supporting the WITS program at Seattle Children’s, please visit our donate page and specify that you want your gift to go to WITS.