Stories are found everywhere. They predominate our lives. They most certainly give us courage. MUSC’s Center for Writing Excellence Narrative Bridge: Connecting through the Health Humanities program held in beautiful Charleston reaffirms the power of story.
Dr. Sayantani DasGupta, author, academic and acolyte of the celebrated Dr. Rita Charon and her Columbia University Narrative Medicine Program noted in her keynote luncheon address, “ I teach people to listen and it is an act of profound humanity.” And so we listened and told our stories for two days.
While numerous medical schools have successfully incorporated arts, literature and humanities into the curricula, it was reassuring that the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) has joined other medical institutions in hosting Narrative Health Humanities programs.
In workshops entitled, “Turning toward Suffering Using Narrative and Contemplative Skills,” led by Dr. Joanie Webster and Hiram College Professor Michael Blackie, participants learned mindfulness practices to reduce stress. In Mahala Yates Stripling’s “Follow Your Heart: Medical Readers’ Theater Workshop,” we were mesmerized by the professional and poignant reading of Dr. Richard Selzer’s story about Hannah, the widow of a man whose organs were transplanted into several recipients. Thanks to the following participants who gave us their best thespian voices: Mansi Shah, Muriel Murch, Shelly Wall, Sandra Weems, Sara Baker and Lori-Linell C. Hollins.
It is difficult to single out one of the conference’s highlights but I must. The session, “ Nurses: Writing from the Heart” moved me to tears. Of course, following my own triple bypass a few years ago, the falling of a leaf now brings on a flood of emotion.
Cortney Davis, Judy Schaefer, Jeanne Bryner, Muriel Murch and Veneta Masson, have know one another for decades and were responsible for the publication of Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses. These poets displayed much courage, grace and talent in their emotional reading. It was indeed a historic moment since they continue to offer enthusiastic encouragement to other nurses to write their stories. Their stories and poems leap from the pages to form a constellation of empathy.
My own life was saved by one ICU nurse, who witnessed my repaired and ruptured artery spurt from my drainage tubes following a triple bypass.
Medical sociologist, Dr. Arthur Frank, a heart attack and cancer survivor, passionately writes in his pioneering work, “The Wounded Storyteller” that “illness becomes a circulation of stories…and the story that trumps all others in the modern period is the medical narrative.” At our conference, so many diverse voices gave resounding confirmation to Frank’s declaration.
Since the field of literature and medicine was introduced to U.S. medical schools in the early 1970s to humanize the science-based curriculum, increasing numbers of physicians, nurses, patients and healthcare providers are now ardent evangelists for reading literature and writing the narrative arc of a patient’s story.
In preparation for this MUSC program, I recently led an illness writing webinar for the American Medical Student Association supported Medical Humanities Scholars Program. The 2014 theme for these future doctors is “The Physician as Storyteller.” Here’s what a few med students shared with me:
Fourth year Emory medical student, Anthony Lee Lugar, revealed that he wants to perfect his craft of writing narratives to “share feelings and coping strategies with patients and fellow medical professionals.” He believes that too few practitioners adopt this method and as result, patient stories are lost or worst, become mere numeric data and observations.
Lorenzo R. Sewanan, a second year MD-PhD student at Yale University School of Medicine and the coordinator of the AMSA Medical Humanities Scholars Program, supports the claim that every patient has a story and the medical encounter often brings out emotional truth if the doctor only takes time to listen.
The writing efforts of these medical students accentuate the value of MUSC’s narrative medicine program. For that matter, I was also impressed that Master of Science students like Rebecca Tsevant and Helen Harley from Columbia’s Program in Narrative Medicine, they professionally guided us through literature and reflective writing exercises. Cheers to them and other students who are immersed in reading and writing about illness and care.
After the conference, I received a poignant e-mail from one of the participants, Sandy, who wrote. “ After partaking in the beautiful readings you shared in your session (Sara Baker and I read from the anthology, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors) and, more importantly, hearing your own illness experiences, I was both buoyed by and awash in emotion so intense that it stopped me speaking for a full half hour. I will ever recall so many profound moments from this conference, but none more personally revelatory and moving than that flawless, hushed, intimate gathering—the perfect end-note for that soul-soaring three-day symphony.”
Let’s hope that we all see one another again at the next scheduled storied MUSC program.
Mr. Borton teaches in the English Department at Coastal Carolina University, blogs at allheartmatters.com and edited the anthology, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org need these bridges of communication.