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Commentary

Masson, Veneta RN, MA

Medicine and the Arts
Free

Ms. Masson is a nurse, poet, and essayist living in Washington, DC.

Among several tribes on the northern plains, the passage of time from one summer to the next was marked by noting a single memorable event. The sequence of such memories, recorded pictographically on a buffalo robe or spoken aloud, was called a winter count. Several winter counts might be in progress at any one time in the same tribe, each differing according to the personality of its keeper.

—Barry Lopez, Winter Count

For most of two decades, I was a member of a small tribe who kept winter counts. We didn’t call them that, of course. We were healers serving an inner-city neighborhood in Washington, DC. In the mid-1970s, we’d established a nonprofit primary care clinic that offered both office and home care to the mostly poor families who called this place home.

Our winter counts weren’t recorded on buffalo robes, but all you have to do is look through our archive of annual reports to find them. These annual reports were legally mandated and useful for fundraising. Each year, we dutifully stated our corporate mission, listed our board of directors, and detailed our income and expenditures. Then we’d fill the rest of the 30-page document with stories, poems, sketches, photographs—our personal views of the events of the past year. Each of us had a different story to tell. As Lopez says, “The same things do not happen to everyone.”

1993 Walking to the Metro station after work, Jim is hit by a car with a yellow fender. Lying on the street in pain waiting for help, he wonders why so many are rushing by without stopping.

In his contribution to the report, Jim, clinic founder and physician, mixed his personal story of lying helpless in the street with the story of the homeless in our neighborhood. He included a map showing the street locations and names of all the “regulars,” drawn by a friend who tended to them on freezing nights. Jim described how homelessness affected our patients and related the plight of the homeless to his university studies in restoration ecology. “The word ecology literally means, ‘study of the home,’” he wrote. “Everything is connected to everything else. … As culture and creation crumble around us it is easy to get caught up in trying to fix the immediate problems. We do not have time to seek the deeper healing that is needed.”

1993 Teresa helps Ms. Bea, her long-time patient and friend, move into a nursing home. “Who will take of me when I am old?” Teresa asks.

Teresa, a family nurse practitioner at the clinic, offered a prose-poem called “Time Line” about herself and Ms. Bea. “The nurse who will care for me probably hasn’t been born yet,” she wrote. “When I was born, Ms. Bea was 58…7thinsp. I think to myself, how does a woman who is 95 years old, tired and ill, find the strength to make perhaps the biggest move—to leave her home of 45 years and enter a nursing home? I hope my nurse will be kind and compassionate, patient and skilled. I hope she will ask about nursing, and what it meant to me.”

1993 Veneta marks the clinic’s 15th anniversary by publishing a collection of photographs (Jim’s) and poems (hers) featuring Maggie, Lady Jane, Alma, Bennie, Bobby and other patients who have entrusted us with their care.

As a nurse practitioner and the clinic’s director, I sat at two desks, one stacked with charts and the other with unpaid bills. As director, I hoped my poetry collection would bring in donations. But what I wrote for the annual report that year was from my perspective as a nurse. I described my experience at an exhibit of watercolor portraits. Reading the exhibit catalog, I was struck by the artist’s dedication: “To the people who have trusted me to look at them.” It occurred to me that healers must inspire this same trust. Patient encounters are not just chunks of time, brief, intermediate or extended, defined only for the purpose of diagnosis, treatment, and billing. The encounters ought to be mutual. “Are you here to be seen?” I remember asking my patient Iris in the waiting room. “Yes, I’m here to see you,” she answered. “I really need to see you.”

In 1998, I left nursing practice to explore what I think of as healing art. Like Lopez’s teacher of history in the short story “Winter Count 1973: Geese, They Flew Over in a Storm,” I have lost touch with the definitive—the stats, charts, schedules, budgets, treatment guidelines, gold standards, and government regulations that governed and defined my workdays at the clinic. But the stories of the patients, my colleagues, and the healing that they and we sometimes experienced are inscribed in my memory. What the old teacher says is true. “Everything is held together with stories … . That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”

Veneta Masson, RN, MA

© 2007 Association of American Medical Colleges