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Literature & Medicine

A reading and discussion program for health care professionals.


Lizz Sinclair
Program Director
(207) 773-5051


VA Initiative

Literature & Medicine in Department of Veterans Affairs Hospitals

Soldier speakingVA hospitals present their dedicated professionals with one of the most challenging settings in health care. Not only are the resources of VA facilities under great strain, but the needs and number of their patients are increasing every day. The Veterans they care for may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma (MST), 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’ frustration can be directed at those who care for them.


The humanities can make a difference in this setting, as we have seen in the Maine and Vermont VA hospitals. The Chief of Staff at Maine’s Togus VA Medical Center wrote: “I have first hand knowledge of the value of this program to the staff of the VA Medical Center in Augusta, Maine. I am convinced that the reading and discussion of these works has enhanced our staff’s empathy for the veterans we serve, and has reduced the potential of provider burn-out.” Man and a woman VA Literature and Medicine participantsA 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 20’s, 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, and this is very helpful.”

The humanities councils that have partnered with Maine to take Literature & Medicine to a VA facility within their state include: Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Vermont.

Veterans Programming

Inspired by MHC’s work in VA facilities, the Veterans Program serves Veterans directly with book groups and related humanities programming.



  • “My expectations for increased communications, better understanding of health care issues, need to change, creative ideas for improving care were exceeded. The participants expressed gratitude and awe for what the seminar brought to them and how the concepts discussed changed their behavior and way of thinking about others/ patients.”

    -Literature & Medicine participant

  • “This is the best team building activity we've ever done.”

    -Literature & Medicine participant

  • “These discussions have significantly reordered how I think about medicine.”

    -Literature & Medicine participant

  • “The seminars helped foster communication across the hierarchy of medical culture, which was great and much needed.”

    -Literature & Medicine participant

  • “Surgeons commune with nurses from our long-term care facility; secretaries speak with equal voice to administrators; laboratory technicians give their viewpoint to obstetricians. In short, [Literature & Medicine] has greatly improved communications among participating employees, and has also improved communications with patients.”

    -Literature & Medicine participant

  • “Both patients and providers are crying out for health care to become more humane....This project can help to restore the heart and soul of health care that so many of us believe has been weakened.”

    -Physician participant

  • “[O]ur discussions have significantly reordered how I think about medicine. I live with the experience of the protagonist in one of William Carlos Williams’ Doctor Stories, a physician who acted without listening. I do not want to be like him. I am learning to sit quietly and listen.”

    -Physician, Maine

  • “I was really burned out when I started this and I did not realize I had some of the biases that I had. And I think the readings helped me get some of those behind me a little bit. And I think I am a better nurse now...I have my patience back and tolerance and a little better understanding of some people that I probably would have judged differently before.”

    -Nurse, North Carolina

  • “Both patients and providers are crying out for health care to become more humane...[T]his project can help to restore the heart and soul of health care that so many of us believe has been weakened.”

    -Seminar participant, Maine

  • “[I joined the program because I] had been working in the ER and felt like I had lost my own humanity; I wanted to relearn how to think and talk.

    -Nurse, Vermont

  • “I am amazed by how differently we read these books. It makes me wonder how differently we hear our patients’ stories. And how our patients perceive us.”

    -Physician, Maine

  • “[The seminars are important because they get] medical providers to the table—they have so little time for thought about the humanities. We (some of us) work in a culture where emotional expression is not encouraged.”

    -Hospital Administrator, Massachusetts

  • “This year again the literature dealt with the deepest issues of the human soul across cultures. To read the prose of great writers expands and nourishes us profoundly. To have an opportunity to discuss these works with others again takes us to the limitations of our own perspective.”

    -Social Worker, Maine

  • “The program really impacted my communication [particularly] the one reading about the little girl with epilepsy and how her family didn't understand it. They were from another country. We have a lot of Spanish and...Vietnamese people around us every day and it makes me wonder now, did they understand? I have changed how I approach them and their understanding of their care.”

    -Nurse, North Carolina

  • “I now think about what people are feeling when they approach my desk, and I am more conscious of the fact that I am the first person they speak to when they come to the hospital.”

    -Hospital Receptionist, Maine

  • “I always knew my role [as a nurse] was valuable, but I think I more fully understand how far-reaching that can be. I have learned how important it is to listen to each individual, to hear what their need is and also to hear the needs of the extended family."

    -Nurse, Maine

  • “A truly remarkable experience—it feels wonderful to come back to why I was attracted to medicine in the beginning and to share dialogue with others who care.”

    -Seminar participant, Maine

  • “I think it’s valuable to have our relatively “safe” world turned upside down by really thinking about these issues that might not be part of our daily lives. Thank you for offering the program.”

    -Dietician, Massachusetts

  • “This has helped me see medical issues through other people’s eyes; it has broadened my thinking and horizons.”

    -Nurse, North Carolina

  • “The project is very valuable. I have learned so much about human frailty and how we deal with it in our structured environment. I believe that this is important to everyone. I would like to see more of this throughout our industry.”

    -Hospital Administrator, Maine

  • “The program helps me reaffirm the need to attempt to bring a supportive healing attitude to my work area.”

    -Nurse, Maine

  • “[The seminars] provide a wonderful opportunity/space to discuss attitudes, bias, assumptions, and various belief systems in a safe environment.”

    -Education Director, Maine

  • “I was really burned out and I was feeling like I was at the point of leaving oncology. And there was one story in particular [that we read in the program] about an AIDS patient and the doctor feeling like he had nothing to offer—sometimes we feel like we don’t have anything to offer. That is how I felt—I now feel connected and feel like I’m not so all alone—I really needed that. And I feel like this group has probably kept me in oncology. I have been able to share when I see others go through these burn out symptoms.”

    -Nurse, North Carolina

  • “The subject matter of the books we read, as well as the discussions that occurred, has often helped me personally in my hospital social work. Listening to other perspectives and interpretations of various topics helps be to be more empathetic to diverse points of view.”

    -Social Worker, Maine

  • “I have come to understand that my beliefs are not necessarily the beliefs of the patients. I have more empathy toward the patients and more understanding of their family members. It has helped me to be more open to other people’s viewpoints and that everyone has the right to make choices that they feel are right when it comes to their own health.”


  • “I joined this group due to burnout. Burnout is not about waiting until you feel like you can’t do your job—it’s constantly asking yourself what you are doing and feeling and helping prevent burnout from occurring by paying attention every day, not waiting until too late.”


  • “I have a greater awareness of the impact I can have [as a health care professional] and I really make sure that my patients’ needs, aside from physical, are met. I am also more aware of cultural needs and how to help patients work within their culture to meet their health care needs.”


Funded By:

The Hospice Fund and the Welch Charitable Fund

at the Maine Community Foundation

Maine Community Foundation logo

NEH logo