Introductory Remarks Poetry at an FQHC

Johanna Shapiro, PhD

When Dr. Nguyen approached me about his idea to introduce poetry at a Federally Qualified Health Center, I was excited for many reasons.  First, it was a perfect opportunity to implement an applied humanities project – taking material out of the classroom and the research library into the community.  As such, it is an important example of how to bring the humanities and medicine into more intimate, and therefore I think more meaningful, conversation.

Secondly, the majority of the patient population at an FQHC falls 200% below the poverty line.  Many of the patients are working poor, many are primarily Spanish-speaking, some are homeless, most have multiple serious medical conditions.  Stereotypic thinking might say, what do “these people” need with poetry? Dr. Nguyen thought everything.

Third, this project is about subverting our expectations of space. All patients know that certain things happen at a healthcare clinic: you have to wait a long time, an MA will take your blood pressure, a doctor will probably tell you to eat fewer carbs and exercise more. What doesn’t happen in a healthcare clinic is that someone offers you a poem.  By changing what happens in a clinic, we subtly begin to enlarge the way people think about what are legitimate activities that can occur in that space.  Sharing a poem says that in addition to getting a flu shot at a clinic, it is permissible to express worry, to talk about your children, to talk about life and death.

Finally, and most importantly,  the project alters the nature of the interaction between the physician or medical student and the patient.  Again, in comes down to expectations: The physician/medical student is expected to take a history from the patient. The physician is expected to make a diagnosis and construct a treatment plan. The doctor/medical student is not expected to struggle through a poem in Spanish with the patient or ask the patient what she thinks a particular line of poetry means.  When these unexpected things happen, they humanize both parties.  From a healthcare provider, the doctor/student has the potential to be transformed into a fellow traveler, who struggles, who suffers, who experiences joy and appreciates beauty. Patient and student find common ground.