A new program at the University of Iowa will feature a very special kind of writing class, for patients who are seriously ill. Austin Bunn is a grad student in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop who’ll run “The Patient Voice,” helping people with illness and chronic pain tell their stories. He says often they’re struggling to tell what he calls a “broken story.” He says it’s easy to understand if you’ve ever been ill or had a family member who was seriously sick — there’s a beginning, when a doctor makes the diagnosis or you have the first symptoms, and then “there’s this crazy ocean of middle,” he says, including treatment and the progress of the disease or some improvement…but he says there’s never an ending. The story goes on, and he says just as it’s hard to listen to someone talk about illness, trying to write the story is a struggle to give it some shape.Bunn knows it from personal experience, as his mother has Parkinson’s Disease. He’s seen her struggle trying to tell the stories of what she’s going through, because while there are new developments, there’s no sense of achieving an ending, closure or peacefulness about what’s happening to her. He had a couple reasons for creating this writing program for patients and seeking grants to fund it. Biologically, he says there’s some evidence that just writing about the experience of illness helps the immune system and can improve a patient’s T-cell level, and decrease their amount of a stress hormone called Cortisol. He hopes people in the program enjoy some of those physical benefits. The second part of the program he calls a “kind of feedback loop.”In addition to the writing progress which he hopes is a good experience with a “moment of reflectiveness,” the works of those taking part in “The Patient Voice” will be published. He hopes the anthology will give feedback to the people who give them care, and help their doctors and nurses understand what it’s like to be chronically ill. He says the program’s been created at a time when attitudes about healthcare are changing, and it may be valuable to that new vision.He says there’s a sense that doctors need to listen better, and the medical community should give patients a stronger role in their own care. The program’s come along at a good time, Bunn says, with medicine looking at treating not just the body or the illness, but treating the whole person. It’s part of the University of Iowa’s “Arts Share” program that offers music, performance and arts to schools and makes the resources of the University available to schools and communities.
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