The Language of Blood: Writers in the Lab

Writer reveals importance of the Arts In Medicine Program at Texas Children's Cancer Center and Hematology Service

Jul. 26, 2006 - Essay

By Marcia Chamberlain

Do words such as hematocrit, gammaglobulin, and thrombocytopenia roll off your tongue?

Welcome to the world of Texas Children’s Cancer Center (TCCC) where many children fall asleep contemplating their CBC (complete blood count) and wake up thinking about their next platelet transfusion.

Thanks to The Periwinkle Foundation, Writers In The Schools (WITS) has been collaborating with the Arts in Medicine Program at TCCC for 7 years. Many exciting works of art have been produced by children during this stretch of time, including sonnets, haikus, allegories, letters, odes, raps, fairy tales, riddles, and rhymes.

Carol Herron, the Program Coordinator of the Arts in Medicine Program (AIM), explains that her mission is to provide enjoyable, educational, and meaningful artistic opportunities to patients and their families. The activities provide the chance for self-expression, empowerment, and development of coping skills.

In addition to the traditional, tried-and-true methods of reaching children, Carol constantly brainstorms new ways to engage young patients and their siblings. In 2006 a new idea was born. Why not invite children to tour the hospital lab where their blood is analyzed and then ask them to write a story or poem inspired by the visit?

Carol imagined that children would feel empowered by stepping into the laboratory setting, learning more about what is going on inside their bodies, and then putting their own spin on the experience. She was right.

The response by our young writers at the hospital has been enthusiastic. Once a month Carol and I ask 3 or 4 children to join us on a special tour of the lab. On the way there, we pass Bandaid Junction where thousands of units of blood get drawn each month.

Many of the patients, including Darius, 13, have had their own blood drawn there hundreds of times. “It’s easy,” says the veteran. “But I’ve never thought much about what they do with my blood after they take it.”

Darius, flanked by his brother Damarcus, 10, soon finds out exactly what happens to his blood specimen. Betty Reeves, Manager of the Clinical Hematology Laboratory, meets us with a friendly smile at the entrance. She wears a white lab coat and blue rubber gloves, and she hands each of us a coat and gloves too. Inside the lab everything is white and sterile.

Betty leads us on a stimulating trip through the lab, pointing out what happens to the blood at every station and how the various machines work. We hear about neutrophils, the white blood cells responsible for fighting infection, and platelets, which help clot the blood and prevent bleeding. We learn about hemoglobins, which carry oxygen throughout the body, and ANCs, which measure segs and bands.

At the last station Betty takes a blood specimen, places the slide under a microscope, and invites each child to take a look. The patients are mesmerized. Geruine, 8, exclaims, “It’s so surprising to see the blood and know it used to be inside my body!”

Betty shakes everyone’s hand when she says goodbye. The patients, though, remember her and feel a new kinship to this woman who analyzes their blood. “It’s funny that a person would know your blood for several years, but not know you!” says Isha, 11. George B., 16, adds, “It was weird to meet someone who only knows me through my blood. Instead of putting a face with a name, she puts blood with a name.”

Outside the lab our heads spin with information. Some patients, such as Alice, 13, soak up the facts like sponges. When it comes time to write, she uses all the new scientific information she’s gleaned from the tour to make sense of who she is-- from the inside out.

I Am
By Alice, 13

I am a platelet, small and purple
I am a monocyte, eating foreign things in your body
I am a lymphocyte, sending out antibodies to fight off infection
I am a red blood cell, circular like a snowball
I am a sickle cell, mutated, deformed, and unfunctional
I am a reactive lymphocyte, changing shape because of the medicine I received
I am nucleated red blood that unusually has a nucleus
I am a reticulocyte, the remains of a nucleated red blood cell
I am a blast, the first stage in forming a neutrophil
I am a promyelocyte, one big ball of granules in the second stage of forming a neutrophil
I am a myelocyte, the third stage with a small nucleus
I am a metamyelocyte, the fourth stage with an even smaller nucleus
I am a band neutrophil with a nucleus the shape of a band
I am a segmented neutrophil, the final stage of forming a neutrophil
I am a neutrophil that fights off infection in various ways
I am Alice H., future medical examiner.

Alice obviously gains a detailed understanding of blood on her writing tour, but her wisdom goes beyond mere textbook learning. Her poem captures something else: a lyrical sense of her own mortality, and more importantly, hope to carry her into the future where she imagines herself healed and positioned on the other side of the microscope.

Some patients find the technical language of the tour overwhelming, but, like Alice, they still exit the lab with plenty to say. These children often turn to metaphor to help them deal with what they have seen and heard inside the lab.

Dean, a young man who has been treated at hospitals around the world, studies a blood smear on a slide and reflects about the war that wages just beneath his skin.

The Never-ending Battle
By Dean, 14

I am trying to understand the
language of blood. Under the
scope everything looks frozen
but the cells are waiting to be
called in for action. When I get
cut, my platelets come rushing in
for the rescue like knights in
shining armor to stop the bleeding
and heal the cut. There is no more
sorrow and the platelets go back to
their unit to get ready for the next
call of duty. The story of my blood
is like a never-ending battle.

Like Dean, everyone at TCCC is struggling to understand the language of blood. What story will it tell today? What story will it tell tomorrow?

No one knows. But, WITS will be at TCCC every week to encourage children to write the story they want to read. And as Carol Herron reminds us, “Art can heal even when there is no cure.”

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