Part-time Hilton Head Islander James Borton reads and writes for a living as a college English professor.
When heart surgery that was supposed to keep him down for about a week turned into a slow dance with death -- nine days in a coma and 21 days in intensive care -- Borton turned to writing as a healer.
"I tell my Catholic friends there is a Purgatory, and you don't want to go there," he said.
He describes the stare-down with mortality as a dark journey, but with the help of a keyboard, "everything looks a lot better these days."
Borton turned to his notebook to chart his physical and emotional journey. He eventually started a blog called "All Heart Matters" to connect with others.
"Good medicine is more than a diagnosis and a prescription," he said. "Telling a story about personal illness and injury enables individuals to interpret how the event has affected their lives and the lives of those closest to them."
Now, Borton has created a course for this fall at the University of South Carolina Sumter called "Themes in Medicine and Literature." He gave this glimpse of it on his blog last week: "I believe that students can learn from a close reading of Chekhov's stories or Reynolds Price's memoir, 'A Whole New Life,' something about empathy and compassion. I encourage others to read (Sara) Baker's new anthology, 'A Communion of Sorts.' It offers much heart."
Also, Borton is helping to organize a statewide examination of "medical humanities" during the South Carolina Humanities Festival, being held this year in Sumter. (Beaufort hosted the first three festivals from 1993 to 1995, and again in 2000.)
The Oct. 1-9 festival will include a panel presentation with medical doctors and writers called "Grand Rounds: Medical Humanities Across the Carolinas."
Borton also is calling for submissions to a statewide contest for writing about experiences related to illness called "Medicine & Metaphors: Writing from the Heart." For details, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One "Grand Rounds" panelists will be Marjorie Wentworth of Mount Pleasant, the state poet laureate.
Wentworth started a program 12 years ago at Roper Hospital in Charleston called "Expressions of Healing" to help cancer patients or their caregivers use words to lift heavy burdens.
"When you have cancer, your life gets taken over by people you don't know," she said. "It's do this, go there, take this treatment. Our program offers a way to creatively deal with the worry, anguish and fear. It's on their own time. No one is telling them to be there. It's kind of a time to stop -- be still -- and process all they are going through."
It's not about producing well-crafted art, like the poems Wentworth writes for our state's inaugurals and reads at the Statehouse.
"It's about the process," she said. "It's intense. People really let us into their hearts. They think about the big stuff. They are wise about things the rest of us don't think about. They trust us with the deepest feelings they have."
The Society for the Arts in Healthcare, founded in 1991 and based in Washington, D.C., says more of the medical community is embracing the arts as a healer. It says art therapy can improve a wide array of health issues, "from post-traumatic stress disorder to autism, mental health, chronic illnesses, Alzheimer's and dementia, neurological disorders and brain injuries, and physical disabilities."
The society says that while much of the evidence is anecdotal, creative-arts therapies can result in patients requiring shorter hospital stays, less medication and fewer complications.
Borton says it has helped him, and he's convinced it can help other baby boomers like himself.
"They are suffering more than anxiety from the unsettled economic picture," he said. "The big picture is that health and the prospects of rising costs of prescription medicines, hospitalization and aging haunts far too many of us."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.