Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2005 | People

Healing Words: Austin Bunn

By Mary Fishburn
Austin Bunn

Scared and alone in his Philadelphia Children’s Hospital room after minor surgery, ten-year-old Austin Bunn felt an emptiness. Although his caregivers said he was on the road to recovery, he sensed a missing element in his healing process—emotional support.

"People were tending to my body but nobody asked me how I was feeling,” says Bunn, an MFA candidate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who soon discovered that putting pen to paper helped him express difficult thoughts and emotions.

Now, 20 years later, Bunn is sharing this gift with others through The Patient Voice project, a writing program he created to provide an emotional outlet and important therapeutic tool for chronically ill patients.

Launched at UIHC earlier this year, The Patient Voice currently provides a ten-week series of one-on-one and group workshops to patients in the oncology, digestive diseases, and mental health clinics. ”Chronic illnesses can affect a patient’s personality and sense of self,” Bunn says. “They feel their [life] stories are broken. We want them to feel whole again.”

Participants receive a journal and pen, plus instruction from graduate students in the Writers’ Workshop. As well as learning the fundamentals of writing, they discover how to explore and define the experiences of their illnesses. Supported by the UI Arts Share program and a grant from the Provost’s office, The Patient Voice will eventually expand to other hospital departments.

A graduate of Yale University and former columnist for the Village Voice, Bunn saw the potential for the project when he decided to attend the Writers’ Workshop. He believed that merging the resources of a university renowned for both its writing and medical programs could prove invaluable to patients.

"I always knew I wanted to write,” says Bunn. “And when I got to Iowa, I realized I didn’t want to spend my time here just wrapped up in my own writing.”