This is a true story:
I don’t remember getting sick. I don’t recall complaining about a sore throat or swollen glands, but I do remember the day my mother called the doctor. She told him I’d kept her up all night long. She couldn’t get me to eat or drink—not popsicles, not homemade chicken noodle soup, not the honey and lemon concoction she believed could cure anything, even after she spiked it with a good stiff shot of whiskey.
Still, she didn’t start to worry until the fever set in. Even then, she waited to call him until the rash appeared and the sore throat I no longer remember morphed into a case of rheumatic fever.
“Take her to the emergency room,” the doctor said. “I’ll meet you there.”
With that, my parents bundled me off to the hospital on a cold, blustery day in March. My father's attention was riveted to the road while my mother gazed out the window as if wondering what else could go wrong.
She soon found out. A few days later I learned that my brother, Peter, had also taken ill and that he was somewhere in the same hospital with the same symptoms at the same time, down the hall or around the corner, perhaps. I never saw him there, so I assumed everything was the same for him, that he was bedridden in a barren ward just like mine with walls the color of ash, the only adornment a lone crucifix above the door.
Because I had no reason to believe otherwise, I expected to share the back seat of the car with him on the way home when the ordeal ended for me. But the seat next to me was empty when we pulled away from the hospital. I didn’t understand why we left him behind that day. No one explained it to me, and I was too young to ask. (To be continued…)
So begins a narrative that has played out in my family for over sixty years. It's the story of a shared childhood illness that eventually propelled one of us into the lifelong study of medicine and the other into a lifelong quest for healing.
Unless you know the whole story you won't understand why it took fifty years for Peter to heal. Why he was in and out of therapy, on and off medication, and in and out of recovery his entire life because of what happened to him in the hospital when he was just five years old, and I was only three.
His own doctors didn't know about it. The therapists who treated his depression, anxiety, and addiction over the years didn't ask. And because none of them knew the whole story, nothing they tried helped. He didn't begin to heal until he shared his story in a safe, supportive community where he was able to re-imagine the first chapter of his childhood and how it had hard-wired him for life. Finally, he understood the origins of the confusion, fear and despair that had followed him into adulthood like a gaggle of ugly ducklings. He finally found his wings.
Welcome to "storytelling~the healing path", an exploration of the importance of storytelling in the practice of medicine, a field referred to as "narrative medicine."
Storytelling is an important skill for both healthcare providers and patients alike. Why? Because patient outcomes are improved when the provider understands the patient's illness in the context of his or her experience, culture, and expectations.
Satisfaction improves when the patient feels he has been heard. And, listen up all you health system CEOs and CFOs: in the long run, it saves time and money. More about that later…
Narrative medicine embraces several writing practices.
One encourages health care providers--doctors and nurses, therapists and aides--to tell their own stories, to explore their personal journeys—the motivation and inspiration, the obstacles and misgivings, the victories and defeats—that inspired them to enter a profession that can be both challenging and rewarding, discouraging and inspiring, exhausting and energizing, depending on the day of the week. Perhaps his father and grandfather before him were physicians and to aspire to anything less would have meant outright rejection by his family. Perhaps she navigated a life-threatening childhood illness, herself, so she knows what it’s like.
Another practice enables providers to share the stories that unfold for them among the patients they care for. Which patients touched them most deeply, and why? What scares them the most? Where do they find the courage, dedication and solace that make it possible to go on day after day, year after year?
Another perspective involves the most basic skill in medical care—obtaining a thorough history of the patient’s illness. Not just the facts (What are your symptoms? When did they start? What have you taken for them?), but the patient’s feelings and thoughts about what it means to be sick. How it affects the people around them, and how they feel about that.
The final path is therapeutic. It requires the caretaker to become a storyteller, to re-imagine the patient’s recovery in metaphorical terms, to tell the patient a story that suggests healing is possible because someone else has already experienced it.
If you are a health care provider, a patient or simply an interested reader thank you for following me here. If you have a story to tell…and we all do…I would love to hear it.
“The degree to which you can tell your story
is the degree to which you can heal.”
Here are links to my literary blog, "begin...begin again":
and to my travel blog, "cherished illusions":