For a week last November, Iowa City held me in its thrall. I was there for a conference at the University of Iowa titled “The Examined Life”. I had wanted to go to this conference for years; finally both the timing seemed right and the conference planners accepted my proposal for a workshop called “Healing Words: Writing Your Way to Compassion and Health”. The conference turned out to be everything I hoped for… a coming together of people engaged with in both writing and health care, many of whom wanted to be better communicators with their patients, to tell their own stories and to heal from the burdens they carried.
In addition to the rich emotional and intellectual fuel of the conference, I also enjoyed several sessions which were part of the simultaneously scheduled Iowa City Book Festival. This annual festival is just one of the reasons Iowa City was named the third UNESCO City of Literature in November, 2008, following on the heels of Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia. Another reason for UNESCO’s choice was that, since 1936, Iowa City has been known as the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop which has produced many of America’s outstanding writers, including 17 winners of the Pulitzer Prize.
I attended an author reading was given by Jon Kerstetter, whose book, Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier Story, had recently been published. The book jacket says that Jon Kerstetter’s life “has been marked by a crossing from one world into another: from civilian to doctor to soldier; between healing and waging war; and between compassion and hatred of the enemy”. I had purchased the book earlier in the week thinking that this man’s story sounded incredible and I wanted to know more.
Jon Kerstetter grew up in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin but his curiosity and determination led him to become an emergency physician and then a soldier, serving in Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq. The first half of the book is full of descriptions of bravery and adventure and adrenalin and accomplishments. But then Jon’s life took a surprising turn and he faced a new ‘crossing’—from healer to one who needed to be healed, from one who helped ease other’s burdens to one whose own burden seemed impossible to carry.
At the reading, I observed a tall man, standing, speaking clearly, engaging with his audience, recounting various chapters of his life… poverty to college education, First Nations reservation to army barracks, emergency rooms to helicopter evacuations. If you just walked into the room, knowing nothing of this man, you would never know that his just being able to stand there and speak belied the greatest challenge of his life.
When Jon returned from Iraq, he had a debilitating stroke. Everything changed—Jon went from a decorated doctor-soldier to having to learn how to do everything from scratch. The stroke left him with profound cognitive and physical disabilities, excruciating pain, all complicated by PTSD.
Jon finally had to admit that he could never be a doctor or a soldier again; he knew he had to make another “crossing”. One of his doctors helped Jon realize that his love of books was grounded in a thirst for knowledge. Building on this, the doctor suggested that Jon enroll in a writing MFA program. Jon had already experienced some ‘writing as therapy’ having done some therapeutic journaling and had felt its benefits.
However, his internal critics identified any number of reasons why he shouldn’t do this—he was too old (59); his reading level, post stroke, was only grade 5.3 level; he was still in rehab; he couldn’t “keep up a fast pace with a slow brain”. Fortunately his internal cheerleaders spoke up and reminded him that he had pushed against boundaries his whole life; that he had gained more, post stroke, than many had thought possible; and that it was worth at least applying… and he was accepted. He remarked “I didn’t learn quickly, but I did learn… Speed was not my forte; persistence was.”
Jon Kerstetter, just as he had imagined becoming a doctor when he was boy living on a reservation, now was imagining become a writer while living in a body and mind complicated by disability and trauma. He says, near the end of his book, that through writing “Details and emotions come to life; I see a page, and the page is me. That extra dimension helps me see that I am healing and not dying; it helps me understand how I am testing the edges of my recovery. And so, I sit and write.”
“Healing” has been a years-long process for Jon and is still ongoing. He says he still stumbles and forgets words. All the more amazing, then, that he chose to write this incredible book and could stand and tell us about it!
And so I end where I began—I attended a conference on “The Examined Life” in Iowa City and gave a workshop about “Healing Words” to health care providers who wanted to explore the potential of writing to tell their stories and to lighten their burdens. And then I witnessed a powerful example of what I had been teaching… Jon Kerstetter is lightening his burdens and healing himself through words. It was a remarkable privilege to hear him speak and then savour his writing.