Nurses Write Their Way To Release

The scene was set for a picture-perfect awards ceremony: white tables, a packed house, dangling chandeliers glinting in the sun. Yale School of Nursing (YSN) students streamed into the New Haven Lawn Club, their chatter filling a large dining room. A lineup of speakers got ready to begin. But the evening’s recipients—Lisa Rich, Moya Anne Meckel, Rachel Blatt, and Mariah Baril-Dore—weren’t there for their work in nursing. They were there for their work in creative writing, which the school honors each year.

Rich, Meckel, Blatt and Baril-Dore are all nurses-in-training and writers who bring their craft to what they do. In early April, the four were honored in the YSN's annual creative writing awards, which For years, the school has prided itself on a particularly creative approach to the field, teaching close looking and listening alongside traditional medicine.  In early April, the four won awards for their achievement in the field. 

“Our students are going to be primary health providers, caring for the underserved,” YSN Dean Linda Honan said earlier this year, addressing a group of artists and arts professionals. “We need you to throw the new wide. What we’ve found is that when a science looks to the arts, you help us.”

That’s what Rich, Meckel, Blatt and Baril-Dore have done with their words, Honan added at the ceremony in early April. For Baril-Dore, it unravels in “A Stolen Glance,” a letter to her father as he succumbs slowly to Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS. In the piece, she struggles with the challenges of home care, describing what it is like to nurse someone you know.

“I had no time to sit in darkness, no time to wonder why,” she writes. “Those days the feelings seemed less important than doing. I had to keep doing or else I would drown in darkness.”

“Being there with that person, showing up for that patient and for your team—that is work,” Baril-Dore added in an interview with the Arts Paper. “But in order to save yourself and not have pieces of you taken every time you go to work, you've got to do something so that you don't carry all that happens with you. So I write!”

It wasn’t easy, she wrote in the piece. A nurse-in-training, Baril-Dore found herself alone for repeated hospital visits, angry at an entire medical apparatus that surrounded her father even as it tried to prolong his life. 

“I showed up like a tidal wave and had the last drop wrung out of me,” the piece reads. “Not by you but by the things that were happening to you.”

It has a certain empowering element. Through her words, Baril-Dore indicates to readers that nurses are not superheroes—made different from the rest of humanity by their schooling—but are wracked by the same grief and anxiety when someone they love is in a dire situation.

Different aspects of the craft appealed to winner Moya Meckel, who said she uses writing as a way to shunt all of these feelings felt over a day in the ER into one place. 

“You have to find an outlet to process all of the emotion of this kind of work,” she said.

Meckel’s winning short-story “Chapstick” describes what happens when a patient goes into cardiac arrest, or “codes” in the Emergency Room. Carefully, Meckel captures and reproduces the jargon of medicine, the terminology used by anesthesiologists and doctors. She remains focused, however, on the strange, one-sided bond that develops between herself and the person she brings back to life.

 “Her conscious mind knew nothing of our intimacy,” the piece reads. “The way I had placed my hands on her jaw and drawn emergency medications into my syringe; the way I had prayed for her to stay in her body and willed her to breathe. She did not know me.”

Meckel’s writing is an escape valve that allows this built-up, unrequited intimacy to go somewhere when it can’t go back into her patients. They’re often unconscious for the entire episode, and will never feel what she feels for them.

Each winning piece grappled with the problem of saving lives in the face of your own personhood. Lisa Rich’s story was much the opposite of Baril-Dore’s: Rich’s granddaughter buried her affection to work better and act as a nurse, through-and-through. Rachel Blatt’s piece tells how quickly personal connections can precipitate in the minutes before a surgery.

It’s a sort of statement on why the awards exist, too. Nurses bear witness each hour they are on the clock—sometimes crises that people in other lines of work encounter once in a lifetime. With those dramas come higher highs and lower lows. The creative writing awardees didn’t win because they got everything off of their chest,, but because they thought hard about how to inform others about this curious circumstance. Because they changed how we perceive their profession, with something as simple as putting a pen to paper.