TAMPA — Just after the cappuccino machine stopped hissing, Lori Thompson stepped to the front of a small stage in the coffee shop and took a breath.
On the exhale, she read aloud:
The baby wailing in the back seat / Four patients on their last breath / Our other house up for sale / They have seen their final days / Four patients on their last breath
Thompson, 28, tried to describe how it feels to be a new mother and also a nurse for people who are in hospice care. Her writers' group at LifePath Hospice tackles these kinds of sensitive topics frequently — offering an outlet for people who deal with the loss of life every day.
With wisdom, energy, soul, compassion and will, the group sets out to document the experiences of caregivers and their patients at the ends of their lives.
Steam blowing from the radiator is one of several pieces Thompson performed at a Hyde Park coffee shop as a part of the second annual reading of the writers' group in December.
The group's mentor, Gianna Russo, 54, a writer who owns her own press, knew right away she wanted to focus on craft rather than therapy. It was slow-going in the beginning.
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Russo is the wisdom.
She met Leah Clark through Clark's partner years ago, and when Clark asked her to lead the group, she accepted.
Clark, a nurse practitioner at LifePath, said some of the members would bring in pieces, poetry and essays mostly, that they would read aloud. And the group wouldn't critique them.
"Some of the pieces were a little raw," Clark said. "We'd just share them and then kind of take a step back."
Later, the group would edit.
Those raw pieces come less often now, two years after the group began. At one point, there were 10 members who attended the monthly workshops. In December, only four women remained under Russo's tutelage. This sorority, a sisterhood of unique voices, seems as therapeutic as it is talented.
Two new women came to the group's November meeting, unsure of what to expect.
Clark introduced herself and Thompson, then passed out an article on narrative therapy that was published in Supportive Oncology in 2008.
Clark is the will.
She touted improvements in patient care that came once the doctors and nurses were able to see treatment from their perspective through creative writing. Then she told the women: This group wasn't going to be a monthly tearfest.
"It's about actual craft," she said. "It's not a therapy group, though it is therapeutic."
Halfway through the November meeting, there was tap on the window at LifePath in Temple Terrace. Thompson left the room, then eased back in with Karen Garrett, a social worker at LifePath who just did a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Clark was taken aback to see her. The tears started to well as she strode over to Garrett and wrapped her in an embrace.
Garrett is the soul.
She is dedicated to the group. Garrett e-mailed the group essays for critique while in Afghanistan. That November night, she performed a poem she'd written for a ceremony celebrating Afghan women's voting rights.
A woman I was born / and a woman I shall be / No greater than a man / and certainly no lesser than
She didn't want to discuss specific things she'd seen while serving as a social worker in the U.S. Army. But the gravity of her job never stopped her from trying to improve her work.
Thompson shared Russo's edits to Steam, which transformed the free-verse poem into a pantoum, with repeating lines for emphasis.
She'd seen much of her work improve in this way since she met Russo. Thompson moved to Tampa from her hometown of Leominster, Mass., after getting her nursing degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She'd flown into Tampa during college to take a cruise and decided she could live here.
Thompson is the energy.
She got her first job at Tampa General Hospital and moved into hospice care after another nurse noticed her passionate response to a patient in need. She married two years ago and had a baby just 11 months ago. But she still makes it to every group meeting and comes with fresh material in hand for critique and revision.
"When I first started, I used to write in a real sing-songy style," she said. "I thought poems had to rhyme."
Now she's writing in complex and classical styles.
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Hospice wasn't a new experience for Russo when she took the group's helm in 2008. A relative died in hospice care. Then after the group was formed, her mother fell ill. Clark was assigned her case. "She went quickly," Russo said. "She went in and a week later she was gone."
Clark said she worked with Russo's mother until she was transferred from a hospital to hospice.
She gets attached sometimes.
Lessons on Love is a poem for Don, a patient who died. She read it aloud in front of his wife, Nancy, at the December reading.
I catch my reflection in the mirror hung, / ornate and antique washed, above your / queen size bed as I witness a love so raw / it jumps right out from between the sheets.
Don's wife, Nancy, worked at hospice as well.
This is the hard truth of being a hospice nurse. Your patients are suffering and then they die. The question is, how do you deal with that loss?
She chose a poem.
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Clark, 45, has been a writer since college. She studied creative writing but graduated with a nursing degree from the University of South Florida.
She shared a poem she wrote, an example of how writing has made her look critically at the care she provides.
To my patient: A note on initial diagnosis looks at annual conferences for health care workers where real patients become points on a graph.
Roughly speaking / you will be a number / on a PowerPoint slide, Clark cautioned her imaginary client.
Joyce Smith, a nurse practitioner with more than 40 years experience, takes a more romantic look at the loss of life in her poem I am Still Here:
Admittedly I miss the chance / To share our past and have you take / Me in your arms, to dance our dance, / Have you recall some special date./ But I am still here for us.
She read just one piece at the December reading, conceding she couldn't quite get through some others without crying.
Smith is the compassion.
Clark hopes to grow her group again this year.
She said she wants to publish an anthology of work based on her group's experiences.
One thing it won't be is a therapy session.