Poetry heals, even, perhaps especially, now in the time of the pandemic and the emergence of vaccines to prevent COVID-19.

That’s the belief of Rachel Pearson, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and of the medical humanities at UT Health San Antonio. Through the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, she is leading an effort to allow San Antonio residents to contribute to a global vaccine poem, inviting all to share their voices.

“We’re in a moment where many people who have access to the vaccine are hesitant to get it,” Dr. Pearson said, “and what the poetry project does is makes space for the hope and the joy and the excitement that comes with the vaccination.”

The Global Vaccine Poem project is a collaboration between the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University and the University of Arizona Poetry Center to encourage vaccinations. The project started with a poem, “Dear Vaccine,” written by San Antonio resident Naomi Shihab Nye.

Her four-stanza poem begins with a plea:

Save us, dear vaccine.

Take us seriously.

We had plans.

We were going places.

Children in kindergarten.

So many voices, in chorus.

Give us our world again!

The project invites people who are receiving their vaccines to add to the poem in free verse and in English or Spanish. Respondents are asked to begin from one of four prompts: “Dear Vaccine,” as if penning a letter, “We liked / being able” to recount what people are looking forward to be able to do again, “It’s the” to perhaps recount frustrations or hopes, or “Vaccine, please” to plead for a quick end to the pandemic.

“Because everyone’s been going through such a difficult year during the pandemic … being able to think about how you’re feeling at the time you’re actually getting the vaccine kind of opens you up to what your experience has been in the last year,” said Kristy Y. Kosub, MD, FACP, a professor in the Division of General and Hospital Medicine, Department of Medicine, who is also involved in the project. “This poem is sharing that experience as a community. And it’s the idea of hope, that there’s actually an end coming to this tragedy.”

The Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics has teamed with UT Health San Antonio’s mobile vaccination clinic, operated by the School of Nursing, to reach the community with the global poem project.

“Students from our campus, medical, nursing, PA, go to our mobile vaccine sites and engage the people in that 15-minute waiting period post-vaccine, tell them about the project and distribute cards,” Dr. Kosub said. “And if they want to write something down, they can.”

The cards are collected and sent to the global poem site where they are added to the thousands of other lines written by people from around the world.

Sometimes people write of loss, said Dr. Pearson, but more often they write of gratitude or how much they’re looking forward to hugging their grandkids or meeting with their family without masks.

“Those stories, those poems are incredibly important for changing the broader perception of the vaccine, for changing vaccine hesitancy into vaccine hope,” she added.

“What the poem does is transform what could be just a clinical moment into a moment of reflection and voice and the emotional and experiential moment of the vaccination,” Dr. Pearson said. “People come into the vaccine clinics with all their emotions, and what the poem does is make space for all those emotions.”

The mobile vaccination clinics are targeting the most vulnerable populations in the San Antonio area, such as historically Black churches and communities with less access to health care.

The vaccine distribution, as well as the poetry project, say “your life matters, your story matters, your voice matters,” Dr. Pearson said.

Dr. Kosub added that having students involved is an extra benefit.

“Engaging students with literature and poetry is a wonderful way for all of us to think about why we do what we do,” she said. “Why are we becoming physicians, nurses, etc.? It’s about that simple thing of helping people, connecting to people. We can have all this science about understanding a disease and the treatment, but it’s really about the connection to people that things like literature and poetry and music bring.”

Oh my dear vaccine/

My arm aches from you/

so that my heart won’t have to/

No more aching to hold my sons/

No more aching arms from lack of hugs/

No more missing friends/

No more fear of tragic ends/

Blessings of ordinary life you’ve brought/

’Twas a gift of gratitude hard fought.

—Elaine, Big Springs, West Virginia