THE IMPORTANCE OF STORY (SUPPLEMENT FOR HEALTH PROFESSIONALS)
It is well known that skill in listening to patients’ stories is essential to good health care. Among the many works illustrating that point are Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, by Rita Charon, M.D., Ph.D., founder of the narrative medicine movement; and Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, by psychiatrist Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD., Ph.D.
But the ability of health care professionals to tell their own stories matters too. Far from being self-indulgent or time-wasting, telling personal stories is a way of staying connected with oneself, as with an old and valued friend. It represents an opportunity to break the relentless focus on external goals and obligations, and to feel like a participant in, rather than a spectator of, one’s life. Moreover, becoming comfortable not only with the content of your own stories, but also with how they take shape and what it feels like to tell them, is an invaluable aid in relating to others.
GETTING STARTED WITH REFLECTIVE WRITING provides guidelines for telling your own stories, but it can also be helpful to read the stories of others, including both patients and other health professionals. The goal is not to compare and contrast, or to decide who has it best or worst, but to gain insight into the experiences and perceptions of others, and thus to develop new perspectives on your own beliefs and reactions.
If you’d like to read the stories of other health care professionals, medically oriented online venues such as KevinMD and Pulse are a good place to start. Folks and the Bellevue Literary Review also publish health-related personal writing, as do numerous medical journals and medical humanities journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA. Other possibilities include Nurse.com, Nurse.org, blogs by and for physician assistants, and blogs by and for paramedics and EMTs.
If you’d like to read personal stories not related to medical care, an online search will turn up many publications that specialize in personal essays. Lists of them appear in The Write Life and Beyond Your Blog.
Models for using storytelling to explore one’s identity as a health care professional are also available in book form, including audiobooks. Examples include Theresa Brown’s The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives and Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between; Peter Canning’s Paramedic: On the Front Lines of Medicine; Jack Canfield et al. Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul: Stories to Celebrate, Honor and Inspire the Nursing Profession; Sean Conroy’s Through the Eyes of a Young Physician Assistant; Stuart Gray’s A Paramedic’s Diary: Life and Death on the Streets; Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back; Seth Wittner’s True Tales from a Physician Assistant. For lists of memoirs by physicians and patients, click here and scroll down to the desired section.
In addition to traditional narratives, graphic narratives are becoming increasingly popular in medicine as in the wider community. Penn State College of Medicine offers examples of graphic narratives by medical students, as well as a graphic medicine website and an annual journal.
The narrative medicine program at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University provides samples of stories by faculty and students, some of which have been published; as well as story slams and a literary magazine.
Online Talks About Storytelling:
Donald Davis, How the Story Transforms the Teller. TEDx, Charlottesville, VA: December 23, 2014.
Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal. TEDx, Furman University, Greenville, North Carolina: May 4, 2014.
Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling. TEDx, Manchester, UK: March 20, 2018.