The Next Chapter: Literature & Medicine Welcomes VA Hospitals
by Victoria Bonebakker ::: bio

With support from a recent major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maine Humanities Council will offer Literature & Medicine to staff at 15 Veterans Administration hospitals and health care facilities (VA hospitals) through partnerships with state humanities councils. Pilot programs in Maine and Vermont VA hospitals demonstrate that the impact of Literature & Medicine is very significant for the participants from VA facilities, where work and stress loads have been both changed and increased by the influx of severely wounded soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq, and where their patients often face particularly severe physical and physic wounds.

There is a desire among [humanities] councils to do what they can, consistent with their respective missions, to address the needs of veterans who have served, and may still suffer for, their country.

VA hospitals present the dedicated professionals working there with one of the most challenging settings in health care. Not only are the resources of VA facilities under great strain, the needs and number of patients they care for are increasing every day. The veterans being served often struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe physical disabilities, substance abuse, chronic illness, homelessness, poverty and a system that at times is not able to meet their needs. Unfortunately, the anger and frustration that veterans may feel is often directed at those who care for them. The humanities can make a difference in this setting, as we have seen in the Maine and Vermont VA hospitals. As the Chief of Staff at Maine’s Togus VA Medical Center wrote:

I have first hand knowledge of the value of this program to the staff of the VA Medical Center in Togus, Maine. I am convinced that the reading and discussion of these works has enhanced our staff’s empathy for the veterans we serve, and has reduced the potential of provider burn-out.

A physician from the White River Junction, Vermont, VA, a national trauma center, writes:

The Literature & Medicine group attracts a range of people at the hospital who might not have much opportunity to talk and reflect with one another. This is very important, especially as the VA is undergoing a lot of changes. We are all being tested and stressed in new ways as we move from treating a primarily geriatric population who faced combat years ago to veterans in their 20s, many with young families, who may only have been out of the war for a few weeks. This shift raises many ethical issues and demands a change in our approach. The Literature & Medicine group provides an outlet for us all to talk about these issues, and this is very helpful.

A physician at a VA Hospital wrote:

“[The Literature & Medicine group] makes my everyday life easier because it helps me to be able to separate from the person who comes in my office angry…The [program] helped me to separate [from patients] in an EMPATHETIC way—a boundary—instead of creating a wall of separation between me and the patient like we are taught. The readings help remind you what has brought people here.”

The humanities councils that will partner with Maine to take Literature & Medicine to a VA facility within their states include: Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota and Vermont. There is a desire among these councils to do what they can, consistent with their respective missions, to address the needs of veterans who have served, and may still suffer for, their country. The Maine Council will provide training and technical assistance but each humanities council will organize the L&M VA program in its own state.

Because of the particular context and needs of health care professionals in VA hospitals, the Maine Humanities Council is adapting the established Literature & Medicine trainings and materials, and has created Echoes of War, an anthology of appropriate readings, edited by Suzanne Hunter Brown, a professor of literature at Dartmouth College and a long time Literature & Medicine facilitator in New Hampshire and Vermont.

In addition, there will be a training institute June 25-28, 2009 and a major national conference in November, 2010, featuring Jonathan Shay, M. D., author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America as key note speaker. (Information about the conference will be in the spring, 2010 edition of Synapse and on the Literature & Medicine website).

What would you like future feature articles to explore? Send us your ideas! Email Lizz Sinclair.

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Literature & Medicine has received major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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