Poetry and Healing in the Burn Unit

Martha Serpas

As a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital, I am first responsible to the trauma team, responding to the Emergency Department when I am paged. Deaths, life support withdrawals, family meetings, advanced directives, orders for support or prayer follow in priority. Occasionally I get to visit my assigned unit and check in on patients and families. 

On the day I reimagine in the poem (see opposite page), I made a cold call in the burn unit, just popping in to see how a new patient was doing. He was recovering from surgery. His thumb had been severed off in a boating accident and had been reattached. At first I did mistake the leech for a wad of gauze, and the joy the boater took in introducing me to “Fat Albert” corrected my misconception. Fat Albert was latched to the middle of the boater’s thumb and was sucking fresh blood from the healthy hand into the pale and sutured flesh. For the boater, Fat Albert embodied a miracle. The leech was making something new out of what was nearly discarded and restoring something new to its old usefulness. 

Similarly, about poetry, the modernist Ezra Pound writes, “Make it new!” He hoped to push rigid rules about iambs and staid subject matter toward experimentation worthy of a new age. I have always thought his directive useful if accompanied by “make it old” as well. There is no new thing under the sun, and the rediscovery of some old forgotten things can be rejuvenated and made new. And even when we speak of spiritual renewal – something we long for as fresh and invigorating – we can be reaching back for spiritual restoration, the grace-filled roots of our beings, and pulling them forward into the light of today. 

A pastoral visit can happen the same way. Chaplains try to encourage a present-tense emotional awareness, which, paradoxically, involves a return to some part of the original self, a bit of liquid amber – enduring, beautiful, iridescent. 

Like a poem, the pastoral visit combines image, thought, feeling, and music. The boater has begun writing a poem from the images of the leech and of his reconnected thumb, and from the joy of his emotions. The ideas coalesce in my mind and in the poem through my associations with his story and his responses. Every pastoral visit has this potential. I am unknown to the patient or family. They are unknown to me. We meet in trust and vulnerability, much like the poet and the blank page. Joined by language, the visit itself becomes a poem as those ingredients – image, thought, feeling – manifest in the music of our encounter. The visit (like a poem) does not signify some other meaning nor is it an end in itself. It is a mysterious experience, a new experience, meant to resonate with our deepest selves and provide healing. 

As the boater returned Fat Albert to his shallow jar, I was reminded of a pyx and the multiple connections communion provides. The boater is Fat Albert’s host – the leech being fed by the boater’s blood – and the boater also receives sustenance from Fat Albert in the form of oxygenated blood to his thumb. There’s a Trinitarian echo here – since I too am experiencing this wholeness, the three of us communing in a form of perichoresis, or God dancing as multiple Persons and as a single Being. 

Perhaps my visit with the boater encouraged my greater interest in narrative health, a subset of the medical humanities, focused on the strengthening of clinical practice through interpreting stories of illness and healing. Literary exposure increases empathy, deepens the understanding and creation of metaphor, and improves diagnostic skills. Medical staff need to be well versed in metaphor to explain conditions and treatments to patients in way they can understand. Better interpreters of patient stories provide the best diagnostic care. 

My practice of narrative health also includes helping health care professionals to write – both narratively and lyrically – to strengthen these skills and to promote their own healing of accumulated trauma and burn-out. 

That day in the burn unit I walked into a poem. The greatest contribution was made by Fat Albert whose disinterested thirst – when acknowledged and appreciated – restored the boater’s thumb and gave me lyrics through which to reexperience the mystery of physical and spiritual healing through this vulnerable encounter. 

Martha Serpas ’94 M.Div. teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. Since 2006 she has worked as a trauma chaplain at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. A native of South Louisiana, she is active in efforts to restore the Louisiana coast’s wetlands. Her collections of poetry include The Diener (LSU, 2015) and The Dirty Side of the Storm (Norton, 2008). A new volume, Double Effect, will be published next year by LSU Press.