The lobby of Houston Methodist Hospital is always a flurry of activity. Doctors in white coats and men and women in scrubs are walking swiftly to catch the elevators. Patients rush through to make their appointments on time. There's almost always a long line at the Starbucks kiosk.
But in a little conference room upstairs, it's a totally opposite atmosphere. It's so quiet that you can hear the hum of the air conditioner.
At the table, Paula Hernandez just finished reading a poem she'd written. Her voice shakes as she tells the story about an experience of watching a patient close to her being sent to hospice.
"They started her with a new chemo drug and I thought maybe she would get better, but she was really bad,” Hernandez says. “So when I came this time, it was like, ‘Okay, this is it.'”
This is only her second class and she still seems a little shy. A handful of people in the room are giving their feedback on the writing. One person encourages her to expose the raw emotions.
This is Houston Methodist Hospital's Life-Writing Workshop, a partnership with the Houston-based literary organization, Inprint. The purpose is to provide an opportunity for employees in the Methodist system to put their life experiences in written form. Some say it's a way to combat burnout. For many it's a type of therapy.
"They're often dealing with very intense emotions at work and intense situations," says Inprint's Associate Director Marilyn Jones. She's one the people responsible for starting the program several years ago.
Sue Anne is another class member. In her nearly 50-year career as a nurse, she's written plenty of medical and academic essays. In the workshop, however, it's like getting to use the other side of her brain. She hopes it'll give her the motivation to get to work on a book of her own.
"I will be completing my Doctor of Nursing Practice in December of this year,” Sue Anne says. “And I've always thought it'd be wonderful to put down in writing what I tell all my students because I teach with stories.”
Houston author Matthew Salesses one of the workshop's instructors. He's also the author of the book, The Hundred-Year Flood. "I try to use the workshops as a way to encourage people to write more. So the exercises are meant to help them start on essays or poems or stories," Salesses explains.
One former class member, Gulchin Ergun, wrote an essay that was published nationally. Titled Twelve Breaths per Minute, it's about her experience during residency when she saw one of her first patients die.
There have been numerous studies to back up the notion that expressive writing is beneficial for people dealing with grief, trauma, or any other taxing situations. Such as all the stress that comes with working in the medical industry.
"One thing that happens after an emotional upheaval is that people tend to continue to think about it, dream about it, worry about it,” Pennebaker says. “They're trying to, in some ways, organize it. But it turns out that words really help to do that.”
Marilyn Jones agrees. "If they just go home and pretend it didn't happen and go on with their life, the stress builds up over time,” she says. “But being able to process it by writing about it, reflecting on it, and sharing it has really helped many people."
But it doesn't always have to be a first-person account of a situation. Putting reality in fictional form is still self-expression. Pennebaker says studies have shown that writing emotional fiction can be almost as beneficial as writing about our own personal traumas.
At the end of each year’s sessions in May, the class publishes an anthology of their work. It's a collection of poetry and prose, both fiction and non-fiction. It's titled, Crain Garden Review.