07 May

The Healing Potential of Narrative Medicine

I am a storyteller by nature. Telling good stories helped me covey my point to Assistant District Attorneys, judges, and juries when I was a criminal defense attorney and ultimately, obtain my clients favorable outcomes. It has made me popular amongst my friends because I tell funny anecdotes (at least I try to find the humor in all situations).

After the brain injury, I had to make sense of what happened to me. When I told the story to strangers or doctors, it helped me process my new life circumstances. It also helped me to see that I was somehow managing and coping even though I often felt desperate and hopeless. Yes, the story was horrific—doctors had injured my brain and body. But it was also doctors that were helping me recover. When I interacted with my new doctors, they listened attentively to my story. They didn’t stare into their computers or write in a chart, they stopped and made eye contact, acknowledged the wrong that had been done. In a sense, I stood out as a patient. I’m sure it helped that I came prepared with a “medical resume.” I took meticulous notes from all of my appointments because I knew other doctors would ask for the results. I wanted the doctors to help me get better so I provided them with as much information as possible. But I also expected them to hear my story, all of it, including how difficult it was to be living through this recovery; to have had my life stopped in its’ prime.

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All patients want their stories of illness to be heard by their doctors, nurses, physical therapists, etc. I knew there was a need for better communication between doctors and patients. When I started looking to return to school, a dear friend recommended the Narrative Medicine (NM) master’s program at Columbia University. I was excited at the prospects, but realized that most of the students were already in the medical field or on their way to medical school. This didn’t deter me; I knew I could learn many things from the program and in turn, hopefully, impart them with the patients’ perspective.

My biggest take away from the NM program is that it wants to improve the health care system in general. It is doing its’ small part by helping foster better dialogue between clinicians and their patients. In the workshops that the clinicians take, they learn the broader guiding principles of NM, and then in smaller groups they practice attentive listening and close reading. They read short pieces of literature or a poem and then have a discussion. During the discussion, the participants realize that everyone’s interpretation is different, just like when a doctor hears a patient’s story it isn’t necessarily what the patient meant for the doctor to hear (we listen through our filter, our biases). After the discussion, there is a writing prompt, and the clinicians do reflective writing. We express ourselves and communicate differently through our writing than we do through speaking. It is cathartic to write and can be therapeutic for the clinicians to write about a particularly tough encounter or occurrence with a patient.

At my graduation dinner, my advisor, Craig Irvine, one of the program directors, paid me an immense compliment. He said the professors had learned from me; that I had taught them more than any other student who had gone through the program. It made me smile to realize that they had been attentively listening in class, practicing what they preached. I so enjoy facilitating NM workshops with clinicians, and I look forward to doing similar work with patients in the near future. NM helped me heal some wounds, further repair my interactions with physicians, and it empowered me with hope. I had lost this hope at the hands of doctors, but working with them, I’ve gotten it back.