Some people fear the end of their life. Others see it as one last opportunity for self expression.
Sheilah Britton, a director in the Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Affairs at Arizona State University, offers that opportunity to palliative care patients at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., as a member of the Poesia del Sol program.
Poesia del Sol is the result of a partnership between the Creative Writing department at ASU and the Mayo Clinic. The program allows creative writing students to practice a technique called “lyric medicine,” a term developed by ASU faculty.
Britton said she travels to the clinic upon request of a doctor or nurse to meet with patients who have less than one year to live. She said she gets to know these patients over the course of an hour or two and then creates a poem, on site, based on their conversation.
“They are just friends with you right away,” Britton said, “It’s lovely.”
Britton said she became a member of Poesia del Sol as a graduate student at ASU in 2004. Although she received her undergraduate degree in film and television in 1984, Britton took literature and creative writing classes and said professors encouraged her to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree in literature.
“That’s always been my real love,” Britton said.
Britton said she worked at a television station for 14 years before a former professor and friend, Alberto Rios, asked her what she wanted to do next.
“I told him I’d really like to do something socially responsible,” Britton said.
Rios, a Regents Professor of English at ASU, invited Britton to participate in the Poesia del Sol program. Rios said Britton was a good match for the program because of her maturity and poetic talent.
“We knew we were getting someone who was innately interested in this,” Rios said.
Britton said Poesia del Sol is the only program to her knowledge that pairs terminally ill patients one-on-one with creative writing students, although it is part of an emerging medical discipline called narrative medicine. According to the Columbia University Web site, which offers the first Masters of Science degree in narrative medicine, doctors trained in this area are better able to interpret their patients’ stories and can provide improved medical care based on a deeper level of communication.
Britton said that although the Poesia del Sol program is not meant to treat patients, it allows them to share and reflect upon meaningful moments in their lives. Britton said family members are often very thankful to have the poem she creates as a reminder of their loved one.
Karla Elling, a program manager of the English department at ASU who oversees Poesia del Sol, said Britton’s background in journalism at the television station has contributed to her success in the program.
“She just has a way of getting people to open up by noticing tiny, tiny details,” Elling said.
Elling described one of Britton’s visits with an elderly woman who was dying of cancer. The woman was reluctant to speak at first until Britton noticed her bright red nail polish, Elling said, adding that Britton’s observation led the woman to share her life story.
Britton said that in addition to interviewing people for her job, she had to move every three years as a child since her father was in the military, and this experience forced her to learn how to form new relationships with a variety of different people.
“You have to be interested in what people are saying in order to connect with them,” Britton said.
When her father died one year ago, Britton said her experience in Poesia del Sol helped her cope with the loss.
“I had a whole different perspective,” Britton said, “I think I can deal with death more easily.”
Rios said everyone who participates in the program benefits in some way. He said that although the students are there to provide a service to patients, they always end up learning something about themselves along the way.
“When we give medicine to people, we don’t think for a moment they can give medicine to us,” Rios said.
Britton has continued her work with Poesia del Sol although she is no longer a student at ASU and said she would like to keep visiting terminally ill patients at the Mayo Clinic even after she retires.
“I feel it’s an honor to work with them,” Britton said, “It keeps me honest.”