THE IMPORTANCE OF STORY (SUPPLEMENT FOR PHYSICIANS)
It is well known that skill in listening to patients’ stories is essential to good medical practice. 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, M.D., Ph.D.
But the ability of physicians to tell their own stories matters too. Far from being self-indulgent or time-wasting, writing personal stories is a way of staying connected with yourself, 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, your 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.
Suggestions for writing personal stories appear in GETTING STARTED WITH REFLECTIVE WRITING, but it can also be helpful to read the stories of other physicians, and perhaps of health professionals and patients as well. The goal is not to compare and contrast, or to decide who has it best or worst, but to gain insight into the thinking and perspectives of others, and thus to develop new perspectives on your own beliefs and habits of thought.
To find stories written by other physicians and health 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.
If you’d like to read 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.
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.
Models for using storytelling to explore one’s identity as a physician are also available in book form. Collections include The Soul of a Doctor: Harvard Medical Students Face Life and Death, edited by Susan Pories, M.D., associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and associate co-director of its Arts and Humanities Initiative; and Writer, M.D, a collection of fiction and nonfiction edited by Leah Kaminsky, M.D., author of the prize-winning novel The Waiting Room.
On the fortieth anniversary of Samuel Shem’s pioneering medical novel, The House of God, JAMA published an appreciation and an interview with the author. (Samuel Shem is the pen name of psychiatrist Stephen Bergman, M.D., Ph.D.)
Book-length memoirs, many of which are available as audiobooks, offer a more comprehensive sharing of experience. Examples include VIncent DeVita’s The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer is Winnable — and How We Can Get There, Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Barron Lerner’s The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics, Eric Manheimer’s Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, Anand Panwalker’s The Place of Cold Water: A Memoir, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. For lists of memoirs by health professionals and patients, click here and scroll down to the desired section.
Books by doctors about the practice of medicine, as distinct from medical memoirs, include Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think, Danielle Ofri’s What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, Eric Topol’s The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine Is in Your Hands, and Martin Makary’s Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care.
Podcasts of stories by physicians are available at The Nocturnists.
Talks About Storytelling:
Donald Davis, How the Story Transforms the Teller. TEDx Charlottesville, VA: December 23, 2014.
Brian Goldman, M.D. Doctors Make Mistakes. Can We Talk About That? TEDx Toronto, November 2011.
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.