James Borton is practicing the healing arts with metaphors, not medicine.
As an English professor, the part-time Hilton Head Islander turned to writing to help recover from a heart surgery gone awry, which left him in a coma for nine days and in intensive care for three weeks.
In his college classes and humanities conferences, he found that he was not alone in yearning to tell his personal story of illness. And he saw the arts being more widely accepted as a factor in healing.
Borton asked for narratives and poems on illness from students, colleagues, patients and medical professionals.
"I was deluged," he said.
The best from across South Carolina are in a new book out this month called "The Art of Medicine in Metaphors: A Collection of Poems and Narratives," edited by Borton with Brandi Ballard. It is published by Copernicus Healthcare, headed by 81-year-old retired rural family doctor and chairman of the University of Washington Department of Family Medicine in Seattle. Dr. John Geyman regrets that the missing element in health care is time to talk. He says strangers are treating strangers.
In his latest Huffington Post blog, Geyman writes:
"Even as we marvel at the latest advances in medical technology in this country, a dire and unacceptable consequence of these changes is already in plain sight -- the loss of the patient as person in the process of our fragmented and dysfunctional health care 'system.' "
Borton thinks the new book shows that patients appreciate empathy.
"For many, it wasn't so much a clinical experience as an emotional and psychological experience," he said.
He will soon use the book in a workshop for future doctors. He does not expect medicine in metaphors to take the place of their medical-school professors. But he thinks it can raise awareness of the importance of empathy.
"Certainly better listening skills," he said. "A good physician listens to your story."
The trauma of illness teaches people a lot about themselves, Borton said. "You want to get confirmation from others. That can give us courage."
Borton said his own illness and the stories from others have improved his appreciation for life and helped him be more attentive to others.
"There's a lot more patience in me, having seen these patients' stories."