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Dealing with stress through literature

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December 10, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

MIDDLEBURY — Health care is a highly stressful field with a risk of mental or emotional burnout, according to Diana Scholl, chaplain at Porter Hospital. Many medical professionals have found a way to deal with that stress through a new way to approach medicine: reading and discussing literature.

Scholl has helped run Porter’s Literature and Medicine program, a book club for doctors, nurses and others in the health care business in the Middlebury area. She says that reading about and discussing the inner lives of others can make a big difference.

“You have to have some way to deal with (burnout), and this gives people a way,” said Scholl, who in addition to being chaplain is one of Porter Hospital’s liaisons to the Vermont Humanities Council.

The club began about five years ago. The Vermont Humanities Council offers grants to help such programs get started, but Scholl said that Porter has paid its expenses for the past four years. Most participants are nurses and doctors at Porter, but the club also includes administrative and cafeteria staff at Porter, employees of Community Associates and other area medical practitioners that aren’t affiliated with Porter Medical Center, and retired medical professionals.

According to Scholl, most hospitals in Vermont have similar book clubs, but Porter’s is the most successful in terms of the number of members and consistent attendance. At the Dec. 6 meeting there were 20 guests.

The club’s activities sometimes include attendance at cultural events like movies and plays, in addition to reading books. They also discuss a related method called narrative medicine, which encourages doctors and nurses to think of a patient’s problem as a story rather than as a collection of symptoms and medication.

“It’s really a revolutionary movement within medicine,” Scholl said.

Book clubs like this also help the doctors and nurses in them connect with each other and get to know their co-workers better. “I could read something, you could read something, and we get together and get a different viewpoint,” said nurse Janet Mosurick at the Dec. 6 meeting.

Nurse Charlotte Phillips agreed. “If we all liked the same books, what a boring world it would be,” she said.

The chosen books often focus on people in the medical profession in one way or another, and the book discussed at last Thursday’s Porter book club meeting was one such book.

Author Trudy Parker of Lunenburg addressed the club about her experiences writing “Aunt Sarah: Woman of the Dawnland,” a biography of an Abenaki ancestor of hers born just as the tribe’s traditional nomadic lifestyle was ending. “Aunt Sarah” was originally published in hardcover in 1994. Lesley Wright, facilitator of the book club, said that they had expected the first paperback edition to be published in time for the Dec. 6 meeting, but it has been delayed.

Sarah Somers, born around 1823, was well known and respected in northern Vermont and New Hampshire for decades for her medical acumen, according to Parker. “She filled a great void.”

Parker never knew Aunt Sarah herself, but she felt she had a strong personal connection to her aunt many times removed. She relied on many family stories as well as historical records about the woman to write the book. She has also tried to become involved with the Abenaki community; she brought intricate baskets to the meeting as examples of Abenaki craftwork.

Parker decided to write a book in the first place to fill a void in accurate histories of American Indians that treat them like real people. “I wanted to portray these people with dignity, because they deserved dignity,” she said.

That focus on humanizing the subject is important for doctors and nurses as well as for authors, Scholl said, especially as medical practices have changed in recent decades.

“Particularly with the high technology of medicine and the business, a lot of us get disconnected from that,” she said. “This is not being critical of doctors, it’s just that there are times when you are less empathetic than you’d like to be.”

Lesley Wright, facilitator of Porter’s book club from the Vermont Humanities Council, said that it takes constant work to stay emotionally involved in medicine, and she thinks the book club helps with that.

“Hopefully we’ve all kept honing our listening skills, and that’s the challenge for all of us,” Wright said.

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