By Michael Jacobs
Physicians are advised to heal themselves, but when it comes to nurses, it appears that poetry can be a part of the self-medication.
Buckhead resident Anne Webster, a fifth-generation Atlantan, spent a quarter-century as a nurse. She started in nursing school at age 17 at Piedmont Hospital, a couple of blocks from her first home, worked for many years at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and ended her career back at Piedmont. Throughout her career, she used writing — notes, essays, poems — as a way to release the stress and trauma of spending the workday amid blood, guts and death.
Thus, it’s not surprising that her debut book, “A History of Nursing: Poems,” includes poems written as long as 39 years ago.
“If a person has the kind of job I did, very emotionally exhausting, writing helps you put it outside yourself and process the emotional and traumatic events you see,” Webster said. “It’s a wonderful way for somebody in a high-stress job to … make peace.”
She said writing by nurses has become a big thing. She has been in journals and anthologies of poems, and she contributed a chapter to a book of biographical essays by 12 nurse poets. She then got an invitation from Kennesaw State University to publish her own poetry collection.
“A History of Nursing” ($14.95, paperback) came out last year, and it’s searing in its intensity. These are not romantic visions of a noble profession, but brutal, uncomfortable doses of reality. You see dangling intestines and flapping arteries, confront death and disappointment, experience rape and flooded lungs, and through the darkness see the value of nursing in the gratitude of patients.
“The wonderful thing about poetry is it allows you to connect … in the least number of words possible,” Webster said. “I think it comes across, as a form, with a much more powerful impression than prose.”
Broken into five sections, the poems as a whole tell a novellike life story of a young woman’s introduction to nursing, the youthful backstory that led her to the profession, the marriage paralleling the career, her development as a mother and grandmother, and the final turn when the caregiver herself becomes the patient and leaves nursing.
Webster used poetic license, but the life story told in “A History of Nursing” is basically hers, including the autoimmune condition that brought her career to an end 12 years ago.
In the end, she said, the poems tell a positive story. “The thing about the book that might interest people is it’s not just about nurses. There are universal life experiences.”
The book is available online from Amazon and Kennesaw State, and you can hear Webster read her poetry at the Blue Elephant Bookshop in Decatur at 7:15 p.m. May 6, the first day of National Nurses Week.