|CANCER & TREATMENTS FOR CANCER CENTER PATIENTS PREVENTION & RISK ASSESSMENT CLINICAL TRIALS & RESEARCH LIVING WITH CANCER|
I only crashed once . . . it was during flight training schoolSo begins a segment of Larry Hoffman's oral history -- a history that stretches from his boyhood in Indiana, through four tours of duty as a U.S. Air Force pilot in Vietnam, to his life now in Coldwater, Mich. Hoffman, who has multiple myeloma, is working with the Cancer Center's new Creative Writing Program to document the stories of his life.
Led by Dave Karczynski, a graduate of the U-M master of fine arts program, and M.F.A. student Kodi Scheer, the Cancer Center's Creative Writing Program helps patients develop language skills to capture their thoughts, feelings and memories. Hoffman said he wishes he knew more about his own family, which is why hes taking the time to record his history.
"Kids and grandkids don't know what went on before them, but this is one way of preserving it and giving it as a gift to the family," said Hoffman, 68. "Most people just put it off."
Writing about emotional experiences has been shown to promote health and well-being. Early research suggests that some types of immune system function improve after writing. Participants in a study published in Psychological Science also reported long-term improvement in mood and well-being, despite initial pain related to writing about upsetting experiences.
Karczynski and Scheer talk with hospitalized patients to develop oral narratives through the program, which is supported in part by Cancer Center donors. Karczynski also runs a weekly creative writing seminar in the Cancer Center's Patient & Family Center, on Level 1. As an undergraduate, Scheer intended to go to medical school, but had an epiphany while working on an honors thesis in cognitive neuroscience: She was more interested in patients' stories than in the diseases they had. Karczynski thought he could make an impact in people's lives while he works on his own novel.
"There are easy tricks we can teach people to help them improve the effect of their writing: how to communicate images in your head, how to describe a person so he really comes alive to the reader," he said.
For Hoffman, the images included a fiery plane crash . . .
It was definitely an emergency situation, and we responded accordingly. You've got to burn fuel, get Pedro the rescue helicopter, cinch your parachute tight in case you have to eject. When the time got close to landing, they asked us if we wanted the runway foamed, in case of fire. We said no. We touched down.
I have to admit that I was enjoying it -- the danger, the intensity, everything. My trainer did a good job on the landing. He kept the right wing (the damaged side) off the ground as long as he could, but of course when it came down, the tire shredded apart, unraveled and flew into the engine. The bare wheel ground down into its magnesium core; the fuel caught fire and we had 60 feet of flame. Pedro was right above us, the plane shuddering with the chopper's thumping.
My trainer bailed out first, then me, but we both had forgotten to uncinch our parachutes. We ran away from the flames to the grass on the side of the runway. We made it. They put the fire out. I was alive; everything was good.
This article first appeared in the Winter, 2008 issue of Thrive. Read the publication -- opens as a .pdf document.