Write and wrong

Sutter Health discharges celebrated writing-therapy program

Sutterwriters founder Lawrence Spann got pink-slipped by Sutter Medical Center last week.

Sutterwriters founder Lawrence Spann got pink-slipped by Sutter Medical Center last week.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Friday the 13th was a tough day for Lawrence Spann. It was the day he officially said goodbye to his baby, a 5-year-old program he began at Sutter Medical Center to help sick people heal themselves with writing and literature.

Called the Literature Arts and Medicine Program—or more commonly just Sutterwriters—the experiment in writing therapy touched the lives of somewhere between 600 and 800 local writers, many diagnosed with serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

But Friday, the last group of Sutterwriters met in Sutter’s cancer center on L Street just days after the hospital cut funding to LAMP and ended its involvement with the program.

“It’s kind of like being hit by lightning,” said Spann. The need to keep costs down for Sutter patients, and the burden of paying for Sutter’s multimillion-dollar expansion in Midtown, prompted administrators to cut about 1 percent of its workforce. That included eliminating Spann’s job, too.

But it’s not just Spann who’s at a loss. Friday the 13th brought the end to what Sutterwriter Janice McBride called “our lifeline.”

“It’s really painful to be amputated from our program,” she said. “The pain is that acute.”

Sutterwriters had gained national recognition as a writing-therapy program. It even boasted a self-sustaining small press. Spann started LAMP in 2002 after years working as a medical administrator. In 2003, he received his doctorate in creative writing. (For a more in-depth look at the program, check out Chrisanne Beckner’s “I am writing to save my life” SN&R cover story, July 10, 2003).

“I see writing as medicine,” Spann explained. And he means it, literally. “Taking literature into the blood and into the bones” can reduce stress, improve mental and emotional health and tangibly improve the immune system, he claimed.

“We’re not doing much in medicine that touches the heart. This is the future of medicine because it taps the human potential to get well,” said Spann.

Sutterwriter Janet Rogge agrees. Suffering chronic pain and fatigue from an immune disease and fibromyalgia, she joined the group two years ago. Shy and uptight at first, Rogge didn’t know what to expect from the writing group. “I’ve been in some writing groups where you really get thrashed,” she said.

Today, Rogge says that her pain has diminished, and her energy level, appetite and overall sense of well-being are much better.

“It is medicine. I have no doubt about that,” said another Sutterwriter who asked his name not be used in this story. The 55-year-old man was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that attacks the bones, and particularly the spine.

He’s lost 4 inches in height to the disease, but is responding well to the treatment and hopes to return to work someday soon. For him, Sutterwriters offered an opportunity to express his feelings about his life and his illness in a way that isn’t always possible with friends, family and even professional therapists.

“Here you can say how you’re really feeling, scream it if you want to. You can just lay out there naked and nobody is going to laugh at you.”

A lot of the work product of Sutterwriters is pretty raw stuff. Everybody reads and responds to each other’s writing in a positive way. And all of the writing is treated as fiction, even when it clearly is not. This allows writers to be free to talk about the most painful and intimate details of their lives. Sexual abuse, loss of family members, and the very real possibility of one’s own death were on the agenda of the last Sutterwriters meeting.

“This is a place where we can be accepted for saying the ugliness that’s in our lives, whether it’s cancer of the body or cancer of the spirit,” explained McBride.

The Sutterwriters also had a few ugly things to say about a memo sent out to Sutter Medical Center employees on July 9, explaining the cutbacks but assuring that, “our administrative team very carefully weighed the total impact on patient-care services before making any decisions regarding staff reductions.”

To Spann, the decision seemed more arbitrary than carefully weighed. “They chose to cut this without even investigating it, with no negotiation,” he explained.

Sutter spokeswoman Nancy Turner countered that the only programs cut were those not directly related to “our core mission” of providing acute care.

True, music therapy, art therapy, even dog therapy will remain, but Turner explained those programs are funded from different sources or are completely dependent on volunteers.

When asked why Sutter officials didn’t try to work something out with Spann, assistant administrator Margaret Mette—who approved Sutterwriters in the beginning—said, “I think it’s very difficult to ask an employee to eliminate their position or program. That’s the responsibility of the leadership team. And that’s what we did.”

The sudden decision to cut the program prompted scores of letters and e-mails from patients, medical professionals, local writers and even fans around the country.

“You had the best thing in the country going there. What will replace it?” asked Naomi Shihab Nye, a San Antonio, Texas, poet and author, in a letter to Sutter president Patrick Fry.

All Sutterwriters SN&R spoke with said they also sent letters to Fry, CEO Thomas Gagen and regional executive officer Sarah Krevans. No responses had been received at press time.

“I understand we’re not bringing in money for the hospital, but I really don’t understand why we’re such a large expense for the hospital. It’s not like they’re using products or monitors on us,” said McBride.

“They had a form of real medicine that was pretty cheap when you think about it,” agreed Rogge. “What’s frustrating is that they didn’t understand just how healing this really is. They made a mistake. I think they made a dumb business move.”

Turner, the spokeswoman, said that most Sutter employees who lost their jobs will likely land other positions in the Sutter system. But Spann will pass. While he’s careful to point out how grateful he is to have had a home for Sutterwriters, “I’m ready to move on. If they can’t hear this voice, if they can’t recognize that we’re on to something, I need to find someone who will.”

While their mentor moves on, Sutterwriters will continue, independent of the hospital. The LAMP program already had spawned several autonomous writing groups off the Sutter campus, and the members of groups at the Sutter Cancer Center are busy making arrangements to keep meeting and keep writing.

But Rogge conceded the gentle guiding hand of Spann—whose deep knowledge of medicine and literature nourished his clients emotionally and intellectually—will be missed. “I know he’ll go on to do more wonderful things.”