Speaking Out of the Silence: An Interview with Nurse Poet Judy Schaefer

by Linda Kobert

Courtney Davis, Judy Schaefer, and Muriel Murch

Judy Schaefer is a poet who also happens to be a nurse. As such, she knows how valuable writing can be not only to overcome the silence that still pervades the nursing profession, but also as an educational tool. In a 2003 article in the American Journal of Nursing, Schaefer wrote, “Whenever I have incorporated poetry into teaching, it has changed the learning experience profoundly… Learning through poetry surprises [nursing students] with sensation and emotion; it shows the familiar in unfamiliar ways and helps them make discoveries about what they thought they already knew.”

In the early 1990s, Schaefer and another poet nurse, Cortney Davis, sought out other creative nurse writers and put together the first anthology of poetry and prose about the experience of being a nurse. Published in 1995, Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses became a University of Iowa Press bestseller and is still used widely in nursing and medical education programs. A second anthology, Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses was published in 2003.

Now retired from her career as a pediatric nurse and consultant, Schaefer continues to serve as poetry editor for Pulse magazine and as a member of The Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine at the Pennsylvania State University. She has three additional volumes of poetry, and her work continues to be published in medical humanities publications and anthologies. She lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

My first exposure to your work was Between the Heartbeats. It’s my understanding that this book came about because you and Cortney Davis wanted to discover other nurses who were writing creatively about their professional experiences.

That’s right. It would have been about 1990. I was working at Hershey Medical Center at Penn State at the time, and I was a member of the Kienle Center. Penn State was the first college of medicine in the country to open its doors in the 1960s with a full professored department of humanities. So we had people there, including the first dean, who were really humanities oriented. The professor of literature, Joanne Trautmann Banks, helped start Wild Onions, which was basically a physician-oriented journal edited by medical students at Penn State. I was fortunate to work there, and when I saw the first Wild Onions, I sought it out and found like minded individuals. That was really good, but the problem was it wasn’t nurses.

Cortney and I were writing seriously, and we wanted to be taken seriously. We knew a handful of nurses who were writing in the same way we were: Ted Deppe, Veneta Masson. But this was a niche, so we wondered if there were other people out there writing.

Our first goal was to create literature, but our second goal was to see what nurses were saying. Because as nurses, we’re there through all the shifts, we’re at the bedside 24/7, we’re closest to the frailty and the intimacy of the patient, and that’s been a fairly silent place.

And should I be so grandiose and say we saw ourselves as renaissance people? A physician who writes or does music or creates art is seen as a renaissance person, and so I saw myself that way. But I had to have a bit of that grandiose idea to forge ahead and take the risk.

And what I mean by risk is, at that time in early 1990s—and I had this happen—if I were say to fellow nurses, “I’m writing poetry,” they would say to me, “Isn’t that nice. You have a little hobby.” And I would say, “No, I’m writing literature.” I was diminished in their eyes. I wasn’t taken seriously. And this was happening to other nurses, I felt certain. So we put out a call to other nurses in AJN and in literary journals, I went to Ireland and spoke at a literary festival, I spoke a lot about the book. And that’s the way it started.
You mentioned how nursing on the front lines of patient care is silent.

That’s right, and that’s what was of interest to me. After Between the Heartbeats, I was teaching nurses at Penn State who were in their RN-to-BSN program. It was hard to get them to write. They’re accustomed to writing their progress notes and being very cautious about that. And I think the cautiousness has something to do with it. They dare not step over that line without permission from someone. They’re afraid to say something that is inappropriate or that might identify the patient. I’m talking about the staff nurse for the most part. They are very accustom to doing only that which has been ordered (I hate that word), what has been prescribed by the physician or what has been approved by administration. But in my classes, once these nurses started writing, it was like the flood gates were opened. One nurse just started sobbing, and I thought, Oh boy! We really needed to do this!

And you know, I think that’s part of why nurses should have this BSN intellectual background. They’re more than handmaids. There are a lot of nurses out there and they’re different. They’re coming from a good, strong educational base, they know literature, and that’s what this is about. It’s about creating art from a place that has been silent. The public is interested in knowing this, and when we create an increased knowing in the public, we create a healthy environment. And it’s definitely healthy for the nurse.

I’d like to hear your ideas about the place of creative writing within the context of education in the health care professions.

Penn State purposely [included humanities in the curriculum] in the 1960s when they opened the school of medicine. And if this is good for medical students, then by gosh it’s good for nursing students. And I believe it is happening. It’s happening at Yale and at Penn. If it’s not a separate course, it’s being sandwiched in, and that’s okay.

Wild Onions started with med students, and now there are more nurses published there. It’s opened up to patients and family members of patients, too.

There are more nurses writing creatively, too. I am poetry editor for Pulse [an online magazine of medical humanities], and we’re getting more and more poetry and prose from nurses.

The other thing is, when Cortney and I did Between the Heartbeats, we were both compelled, as artists, as writers, to do this. We just did it. At that time, both of us were working full time, she as a nurse practitioner, me as a staff nurse. We were not academics, we were just compelled to do it. Now we’re both grannies, and happily so, but we’re both still writing.

But I don’t see it as a hobby. I see it as my life’s work, and nursing happened to be a wonderful, fulfilling, gratifying profession that dovetailed. If I were a hotel manager, I would still be writing and painting.

What is it like to be putting your nursing experiences into this creative form?

It’s very gratifying. It dignifies the profession. It’s a form of integrity, pulling it all together. Cortney and I and other nurses who write have taught workshops, and one of the prompts we use is to start with, “This happened…” In that context, writing becomes healing for the writer. For the nurse, the daily task of working is a highly traumatic situation. But for the nurse, she or he is accustom to this trauma day in day out. Maybe there is a post traumatic kind of thing to it. For nurses who write about [their work], they are healed in that process. It’s very satisfying to say this happened, and this is what I did, and to feel gratified by it.

So what you’re saying is, nursing is a really challenging profession and there are things that traumatize the nurse, but writing about it can help.

That’s right. And depending on where you’re employed and what you’re doing, one kind of nursing can be more traumatizing than another. I can never imagine myself doing emergency room nursing or ICU nursing, for example. So yes, it is traumatizing for the nurse, and I wonder if the staff nurse in particular, if that nurse has a place to go with that feeling. I worry that they smoke too much or drink too much. The nurse needs to have a place to go with that trauma. For me it’s been creative writing. For others, maybe its woodworking, maybe it’s quilting. It’s giving yourself permission to express yourself.

A couple of Judy’s favorite poems:

Negative Conditioning” by Veneta Masson

Admission, Children’s Unit” by Theodore Deppe


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