Humanities in the VA

by Lizz Sinclair

Veterans Administration hospitals and health care facilities (VA hospitals) present the dedicated professionals who work in them with one of the most challenging settings in health care. Not only are the resources of VA facilities under great strain, the needs and number of patients they care for are increasing every day. The veterans being served often struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe physical disabilities, substance abuse, chronic illness, homelessness, poverty and a system that at times is not able to meet their needs. Unfortunately, the veterans’ anger and frustration can often be directed at those who care for them.

The humanities—specifically, the facilitated reading and discussion model of the Maine Humanities Council’s Literature & Medicine program—can make a difference in this setting. Pilot programs in Maine and Vermont VA hospitals have demonstrated that the impact of Literature & Medicine is very significant for participants from VA facilities, where work and stress loads have been both changed and increased by the influx of severely wounded soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq, and where patients often face particularly severe physical and psychic wounds. A physician from the White River Junction, Vermont, VA, a national trauma center, writes: “The Literature & Medicine group attracts a range of people at the hospital who might not have much opportunity to talk and reflect with one another. This is very important, especially as the VA is undergoing a lot of changes. We are all being tested and stressed in new ways as we move from treating a primarily geriatric population who faced combat years ago to veterans in their twenties, many with young families, who may only have been out of the war for a few weeks. This shift raises many ethical issues and demands a change in our approach. The Literature & Medicine group provides an outlet for us all to talk about these issues, which is very helpful.”

With support from a recent major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maine Humanities Council will be to able offer Literature & Medicine to the staff at 15 VA hospitals through partnerships with other state humanities councils across the country. The Maine council will provide training and technical assistance (the first of which was a training in June 2009 in Chicago), but each council will organize the VA program in its own state. There is a desire among these councils to do what they can, consistent with their respective missions, to address the needs of veterans who have served, and may still suffer for, their country.

Tammy Duckworth, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs speaks to participants at Literature & Medicine’s first Training Institute in June 2009.
photos: steve davis

Interview with Dan & Deb Hamilton

Dan and Deb Hamilton share their separate and shared experiences participating in Literature & Medicine over the last nine years.
photo: steve davis

Lizz Sinclair interviewed Dan and Deb Hamilton for the Spring 2009 issue of Synapse, the eZine of the Literature & Medicine program. Following is a brief background of the interview, which can be read in full online.

Literature & Medicine at Togus Veterans Administration Medical Center
Founded at the end of the Civil War, the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Togus, Maine, was the first VA hospital in the country. Togus was also the first to host Literature & Medicine. In fact, it was the strong response to the program from participants at Togus—and later at the VAMC in White River Junction, Vermont—that prompted us to offer the program to other VA hospitals across the country. Dan Hamilton, a Physician Assistant at Togus for twenty years, has been the driving force behind Literature & Medicine there. Both he and his wife Deb Hamilton, a Home Health and Hospice nurse, have participated in Literature & Medicine for nine years. With a number of VA hospitals slated to host the program for the first time in 2010, Lizz wanted to talk to them about their experiences with Literature & Medicine.

Literature & Medicine Anthologies

Literature & Medicine Anthologies for Health Care Professionals and General Readers
Literature & Medicine groups are always searching for meaningful readings and often have tight budgets. A good anthology is a tremendous resource, and can help facilitators and group members explore readings they might not otherwise find. Although there are many literature and medicine anthologies available, the Maine Humanities Council’s two offerings are different because they deliberately reflect the wide range of readings that Literature & Medicine groups discuss, with representation of—and from—a variety of health care professionals and people of diverse backgrounds, situations, and conditions.

Echoes of War, edited by Suzanne Hunter Brown
Upon receiving the National Endowment for the Humanities grant for expansion to VA facilities, the Maine Humanities Council asked Suzanne Brown, long-time facilitator at White River Junction VAMC and many other Literature & Medicine sites, to compile a collection of short readings that address issues particularly relevant to those caring for veterans. In her introduction, Brown writes, “The selections in this anthology focus on issues unique to, or more acute in, hospitals for soldiers. Nevertheless, any group of health care professionals can benefit from the readings, both because all health care facilities will increasingly see veterans and because “veterans’ issues” often illuminate general medical concerns. I hope, too, that the general public will appreciate these readings as a way to better understand the experience of the men and women who fight for us.”

The readings in Echoes of War address a variety of medical and social concerns, including homecoming, trauma, aging, ethics, memory, and cultural conflict. Contributors include Anne Brashler, Raymond Carver, André Dubus, Louise Erdrich, George Garrett, Atul Gawande, Arthur Kleinman, Nancy Mairs, Marilyn Nelson, Veneta Masson, Platon, John Stone, and Brian Turner.

Imagine What It’s Like, edited by Ruth Nadelhaft
The University of Hawai‘i Press published the Council’s first anthology in June 2008, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the Morton Family Foundation, and the Hawai‘i Humanities Council. It includes work by Dannie Abse, Felicia Nimue Ackerman, Henri Barbusse, Joy Harjo, Leslie Nyman, Jonathan Shay, and many others.

Both publications feature the full scope of literary genres, from poetry and fiction to plays and memoirs; the editor’s useful commentary, which provides context for the individual selections; and suggestions for longer readings. For information on ordering: Echoes of War | Imagine What It’s Like.