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31 January 2006
Emory Doctor's Poetry Explores Death through the Voices of Dying Patients
While most people are aware that death is inevitable, few are willing to share their deepest feelings about death. William T. Branch, MD, Carter Smith Senior Professor and division director of General Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine, explores death and mortality in a recently published article in the January issue of the "Journal of General Internal Medicine." The article features five poems that capture the thoughts and feelings of terminally ill patients at Grady Memorial Hospital. The patients were expected to have six months or less to live.

The poems were written by Dr. Branch and based on tape-recorded conversations he and colleague, Alexia Torke, MD, formerly of the Emory University School of Medicine, conducted with 23 terminally ill patients.

The first poem, "If I Was Going to Die," is inspired by a patient who only had a short time to live. The patient discussed trying to prepare for death, and shared his concern about causing his loved ones to suffer.

Another poem, "You Are Not Alone," speaks of a patient's time with her three sisters after spending a decade apart. "It was wonderful. They are my sisters. We went different ways. For a long time I've been alone. Actually, it was great. It is nice to know you are not alone anymore," she says, grateful for their love and support.

Another patient says in the poem "I Only Pray" that he prays for God to help whenever he faces trouble or sickness. He tries to pray everyday and before going to sleep, but like most people, he doesn't think about praying until he faces trouble.

Dr. Branch was inspired to write the poems after realizing how powerful it would be to translate patients' words into poetry. He says the poems convey the power of patients' feelings and their spirituality much more than listening to words or reading prose ever could.

"The real meaning of these poems is that these patients are just like you and me," he says. "It allows you to see humanity and the fact that we're all sort of in the same boat. We are all born, we all die, and what we think about when it's time to die, is pretty much the same for me as it is for a homeless person on the street. You're going to be thinking about your family, the people you're leaving behind. It sort of makes the point about what the real meaning of life is. That's the power of it."

Dr. Branch originally began studying patients' thoughts and feelings about faith, death, and medical and treatment decisions. He says that patients were very honest and open about their feelings. Surprisingly, he found very few who were angry or depressed; most accepted their impending death.

"Many of them wanted to be kept comfortable and did not want to suffer," Dr. Branch explains. "What was very powerful was the extent to which religion or spiritual views played a role in patients' views on death. It was that one-to-one connection through prayer and the concept that they were part of a spiritual plan. Even though facing death was very difficult, it was ultimately meaningful to these patients."

While he is not aware that any other physician has written poetry using patients' words, Dr. Branch says that more medical schools are beginning to use literary approaches to enhance medical teaching and to learn more about patients' ideas regarding death and illness.

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