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Poets Lead Workshops for Professionals at Eight New Jersey Hospitals to Improve Communication, Build Empathy

Healthcare workers discuss poetry in a Poetry Heals workshop. Credits: Mary Rizzo

The New Jersey Council for the Humanities (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing enriching community programming, celebrates National Poetry Month by partnering with CavanKerry Press (CKP) to offer a free series of poet-led workshops for caregivers at eight New Jersey hospitals. Now in its second year, the Poetry Heals program gives doctors, nurses and other medical staff the opportunity to pause and think about their encounters with patients, which relieves stress and boosts healthcare quality.

Each one-hour workshop features readings of poems chosen by the poet facilitating the discussion group. Themes like illness and healing resonate with participants and provide a springboard for writing about and sharing experiences of evaluating, diagnosing, comforting and educating patients. Specifically, attendees consider how word choice can enhance understanding and alleviate suffering. Through the therapeutic writing exercises, healthcare workers also restore their own energy and enthusiasm for the demands of day-to-day hospital work.

“At the beginning it’s difficult because they’re afraid of being wrong and not knowing what a poem means immediately,” says Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher at CKP, of the initial challenges participants face. “But you get a few people to talk and they get less and less afraid. By the end they have the courage to listen and be creative.”

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The 2013 Poetry Heals sessions are currently underway, with eight hospitals hosting events in April and May, including:

  • St. Barnabas Medical Center, Livingston
  • Overlook Hospital, Summit
  • Morristown Medical Center, Morristown

Robert Clarkgerman, a medical humanities graduate student at Drew University, attended the St. Barnabas Medical Center workshop taught by poet Cat Doty and described the event’s ideal outcome: “Participants take the humanistic, qualitative approach to what we talked about today and put that into practice with their own patients. They come to an understanding of where poetry fits into the medical field. It’s not all about lab results.”

Poetry Heals is part of the broader, nationwide literature and discussion program Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care®, which NJCH has sponsored in New Jersey since 2005. For more information, please visit

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