Example of Virtual Narrative Medicine Exercise

It’s been more quiet than usual here but that’s because I’ve been busy writing for my online Narrative Medicine program with Columbia University.

I thought I’d take a moment to share the (virtual) practice of Narrative Medicine that we have been participating in for the program. It’s a beautiful approach to using creative arts to stimulate personal reflection and discovery, especially as it pertains to my work experiences as a nurse.

This week’s exercise:

We read this short poem, “The Ship Pounding,” by Donald Hall. It’s a profound description of life in a hospital.


The Ship Pounding

Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship’s massive engines
kept its propellers turning.
Week after week, I sat by her bed
with black coffee and the Globe.
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
traveled to a harbor
of breakfast, work, and love.
I wrote: “When the infusions
are infused entirely, bone
marrow restored and lymphoblasts
remitted, I will take my wife,
bald as Michael Jordan,
back to our dog and day.” Today,
months later at home, these
words turned up on my desk
as I listened in case Jane called
for help, or spoke in delirium,
ready to make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without moving a knot,
without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.


A colleague then crafted a writing prompt, to spark personal reflection in light of the poem we read.

I had 5 minutes to respond to the prompt,

“Write about black coffee.”

My written response was the following:

“I think all the time about how my patients’ parents cope with their child’s illness, with life in a hospital so rudely and indefinitely interrupted by this diagnosis, the complications. Most parents struggle deeply with an internal lack of permission to leave the hospital room. “You should go get some food, or take a walk and get some fresh air, ” I tell them. “I’m here, I’ll take care of your child. You need a break from this room.” But they won’t go for long, just enough to get coffee. It’s always the coffee they will slip out of the room for, and then hurry back, somehow slightly reassured that maybe now the day, the whole nightmare, will feel more tolerable. They’ve got that one familiar comfort in hand.

But it’s rarely an expensive $5 latte they return with. It’s black coffee. As if they can’t allow themselves to be more indulgent, to experience any greater pleasure if their child is bedbound and suffering. It’s quick, familiar, easy, cheap, not too indulgent.

I recognize that, that sense of a survivor dealing with survivor’s guilt. Sometimes as the nurse, I only allow myself black coffee too.”

My purpose in sharing this is not to put on display my writing abilities, as Narrative Medicine isn’t about being an impressive writer. It’s about shaping a space for those of us who are so busy doing tasks and putting out fires in our work as patient care providers, that we sometimes neglect our own internal embers of purpose, connection and meaning. It gives a space and a way to stoke those embers back to life.

It’s beautiful.