Student, Writer, Nurse: Annual Writing Contest Helps Process Bedside Experiences

Medical students don’t typically care for patients until their third year of graduate school. Nursing students, on the other hand, often take on patient care midway through their second undergraduate year, in the midst of their classroom learning -- a level of proximity that exposes them to the full spectrum of emotions felt within the intimacy of a hospital room.

The intensity of nursing students’ experiences also leads to their early realization that they must find ways to keep themselves resilient. It’s why the University of Virginia School of Nursing requires writing and journal-keeping across the curriculum, among other reflective and contemplative activities, and also why it sponsors an annual writing competition meant to offer students at all levels the ability to share their experiences with one another, and the world.

Now in its 13th year, the contest –­ organized by the Compassionate Care Initiative ­– honored four winners for 2015 at last weekend’s second Melton D. & Muriel Haney Interprofessional Conference on Compassionate Care at the End of Life. They are:

  • Callie Bateman, a third-year Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing student, for “The Walls of Your Room are Jaundiced”
  • Melissa Behl, a 2015 degree candidate in the Clinical Nurse Leader program, for “The First Death”
  • Melissa Morgan, a graduate nursing student, for “It’s Like Riding a Bike …”
  • Harriet Vincent, a graduate nursing student, for “Snow Day: A Nurse’s Narrative”

This year’s judges included Susan Bauer-Wu, Kluge Professor for End-of-Life Care and the director of the Compassionate Care Initiative; Patricia Sullivan, a lecturer in the English Department; Linda Kobert, a Charlottesville-based freelance writer and educator; and Christine Kueter, writer and editor in the School of Nursing.

Each winning student received a check and a small gift, thanks to the school’s annual fund and the generosity of its alumni, along with guidance in getting their work published in a nursing journal.

Established in 2002, the contest blossomed out of nursing students’ expository writing exercises and journal-keeping, which have been fixtures of both undergraduate and graduate courses.

Both nursing faculty and this year’s winners acknowledge the inextricable link between clinical and creative endeavors.

“Writing is my way to process, make sense of, and communicate sometimes chaotic, silly, touching and absurd moments we see as clinicians,” said Morgan, of Richmond. “Storytelling can be a powerful, creative and vulnerable exploration to better understand healing, grieving and the human experience.”

Writers and clinicians also share “a willingness to risk committing (themselves) in the hopes of achieving a beautiful outcome,” said Behl, from Alexandria, who transitioned into nursing after earning an undergraduate degree in Spanish and working with rural migrant populations in Virginia. “I love caring for patients and seeing the many sources of resilience that they and my fellow clinicians draw from. I am driven to make a record worthy of people’s struggles and perseverance.”

Bateman’s winning entry:

The Walls of Your Room Are Jaundiced 

The walls of your room are jaundiced.

A couple weeks ago I leaned against them
and laughed because you tied 
glowsticks to the ceiling fan, 
videotaped them spinning around 
until the colors faded.
You looked ridiculous staring 
up at them like that, 
with your mouth hanging open.

This morning I went to the hospital
and stood over the yellowed body 
of my newborn patient 
while his chest 
and after a few minutes,
I watched it

That night you ask me if I saw the light leave his eyes,
as if he had lamps beneath his pupils
or maybe glowsticks
because light leaves in all kinds of ways

but it doesn’t look like that.
It looks like a spinning ceiling fan.
It looks yellow.




Media Contact

Christine Phelan Kueter

School of Nursing