The Healing Power of Poetry

Engage the imagination powerfully enough to absorb a child completely for 20 minutes. Provoke, gently, to stimulate a memory or a detail from the child’s past or present that will inspire a special word or two, an image, a name. And from that comes a poem.

It’s magical watching Sally Doyle and Kathy Evans set this process in motion. Both published poets from California Poets in the Schools – one of the largest literary artists-in-residence programs in the nation – they visit our young patients every week to pull them out of their illnesses and into the powerful world of poetry.

“Now more than ever, the world needs to hear their voices. When they write, they write for all of us.”

Sally and Kathy are part of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals poetry program, an offering through our Child Life department that helps patients put their experiences into words and give voice to their emotions. The program started on our San Francisco campus in 2010 with support from Ken Haas, a local poet and benefactor who wanted to see poetry brought to children suffering from serious injuries or lifethreatening illness.

“At first, everyone I spoke with thought poetry writing in a children’s hospital setting was a great idea, though each had 10 reasons why it was impossible,” says Ken. “But with perseverance, vision, and a willing ear on the part of UCSF, the idea won out.”

Five years later, the program expanded to our Oakland campus, allowing us to bring the power of poetry to more than 500 young patients and their families on both sides of the Bay.

“I’ve taught poetry at juvenile hall, in colleges, and in senior homes,” says Kathy. “But the hospital has been the most meaningful place to me. I’m stunned by some of the things these kids come up with.”

Sometimes patients will use their poems to look squarely at their illness, treatment, things they miss about home. For others, a poem will offer the opportunity to explore new feelings, fears, and dreams.

Following the writing sessions, students have something to take home and share with family and friends. If there’s time, they have a chance to read their poems aloud to the rest of the class, which stimulates conversation and builds confidence.

“One of the most important battles we face as human beings is the war against disease,” says Ken. “Children fighting for their health are on the front lines of that war and are therefore our greatest heroes in our greatest battle. Now more than ever, the world needs to hear their voices. When they write, they write for all of us.”