All right it’s time for me to engage in shameless self promotion about the successful publication of the new anthology, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors. Three years ago I learned a painful lesson about how a patient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It’s no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.
My academic life and illness narrative converged in the fall of 2011, when I assembled a stellar cast of physicians and professors for a symposia aptly entitled The Art of Medicine: Metaphors & Narratives held at the University of South Carolina Sumter campus.
When doctors have less time to spend with patients, one can only ask why do poems and stories matter? There is an increasing consensus among physicians that every patient’s story, whether it be through the standard admission report, the clinical medical chart, or the arc of an entire life history, translates into a valued healing narrative. After all, each one of us approaches the doctor with one question, “My story is broken. Can you fix it?”
Stories and people need one another. Upon my release from the hospital after 21 days in the ICU following heart surgery, I could not help to notice the imperfect blood-red billboard size heart emblazoned on the side of hospital’s sandstone wall. It offers reassurance that no one has a perfect heart; nor a perfect story.
In the course of my recovery and healing, I have repeatedly cited Joan Didion’s poignant testimonial to stories and adopted it as my mantra: “We tell our stories in order to live.” After all, people experience all kinds of heart events in the course of life and our stories live in being told. Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our chaotic and messy lives. My friend and Island Packet columnist, David Lauderdale recently wrote about how poetry helps heal and generously cited the new anthology.
Illness narratives in the form of essays, poems and stories allow physicians and nurses to better understand and to empathize with the patient’s disease experience. For sure, Dr. Rita Charon, a physician with a Ph.D. in English Literature, continues her evangelism by training doctors to graft clinically significant facts from patients’ stories and to use them to make diagnostic and therapeutic decisions.
The arts and humanities, especially literature is widely recognized as a centerpiece in medical education. Stories offer opportunities for learning and a place for reflective self-expression and healing. As a result, an increasing number of academicians, doctors and health professionals understand that the narrative medicine movement draws practitioners- doctors, nurses and volunteers- closer to the stories of illness, to more humanely and effectively bring about healing.
In this anthology, there’s a panoply of experiential and palpable voices like Gilbert Allen’s “After Watching a Play about Cancer, He Learns Why He Hates The theater,” to David Bachman’s “The Autopsy Room” and Debra Daniel’s “What Happens in the Chambers of Our Hearts.” These contributors and so many others reaffirm the restorative power of writing to help forge connections among people who have had surgery, suffered or witnessed illness.
Our anthology includes thematic reflections on death, diagnoses, fears, humor, joy and transformation both physical and spiritual. It was challenging to categorize all of these submissions into tidy classifications. While the noted sociologist, Arthur W. Frank through his pioneering book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body Illness and Ethics offers compelling and common plot lines for an illness narrative: through Restitution, Chaos, and Quest examinations, I have generously used the classifications of Recognition, Tension and Transformation in placing these poems and stories into some orderly configuration, perhaps in doing so to primarily satisfy the requirements of the publisher, Copernicus Healthcare and to assist the reader.
No one suggests or requires physicians, patients or students to write like Anton Chekhov or Williams Carlos Williams, but among the myriad of voices in this collection, they all succeed in telling their story, sharing their brokenness, discovering healing metaphors and at unexpected moments offering grace and renewal.
Send me your story.