Dr. Rita Charon Uses Creative Expression to Explore the Realm of Illness and Recovery

For the Narrative and Medicine: Caring for the Future Conference in March 2015 in Lisbon, Columbia’s M.S. in Narrative Medicine faculty member Dr. Rita Charon presented “Illuminating the Real of Health, Expressing the Real of Illness.”

She says, “As in all events of illness, there is a wordless surrender of the sick to the skilled. There is simultaneously a wordless gratitude from the skilled to the sick for the trust of that surrender. When these forces are, indeed, put into words, they form a muscular reciprocity of kindness and confidence and recognition.”

She spoke about her personal experience undergoing surgery for a rotator cuff tear. In the OR, she was cared for by one of her former Columbia University medical students, now the first assistant to the chief surgeon. “In this little 3-hour operation, my former student and I lived out tremendous mutual commitments of the deepest kind.” However, Charon underscores that this bond isn’t restricted to acquaintances: “This happens every time a skilled person helps another person who is ill.”

Charon emphasizes that the care of the sick unfolds in stories, whether one is the caregiver or the patient. “Skill in narrating and in representing what we observe or undergo in moments of illness give us access to knowledge that, without the narrative representation, would remain outside of awareness.”

The M.S. in Narrative Medicine program is built upon this need to locate how care and illness define us and transform us. She says that students in the program “write then-and-there in class, usually for just a few minutes, freely letting themselves go wherever the work and the prompt might invite them. When they read to one another what they have written, they discover things they did not know they knew, both about themselves and about one another.”

To what end do these creative endeavors aspire? Charon says, that, through writing and other forms of expression in the program, “We seek the muscle and fortitude necessary to look life full in the face.”

Read the entirety of “Illuminating the Real of Health, Expressing the Real of Illness” by Rita Charon.