Narrative Medicine Workshop Explores Stories of Patients and Medical Practitioners

On Saturday, November 15, 2014, over 30 people gathered for the Narrative Medicine Digital Storytelling Lab at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall. Hosted by Lance Weiler of the Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia with opening remarks by Narrative Medicine program director Rita Charon, the day-long workshop used collaborative exercises to spark wide-ranging conversations about encounters with illness and caregiving.

Though the day’s events focused on sickness and health, attendees hailed not only from the medical field but also from the realm of the arts and humanities. The range of workshop-goers included clinicians, public health researchers, writers, and documentarians. When asked why they attended the Narrative Medicine Storytelling Lab, some expressed that they sought how to enhance the care that they give, while others sought to make sense of the care that they and their loved ones have received.

One doctor in attendance told the story of his patient who came from the Dominican Republic. Although the patient had cultivated a comfortable retiree lifestyle in the U.S., complications emerged, possibly related to his previous bout with cancer. These vicious new tumors meant that the patient was paralyzed from the waist down, that he would never walk again, and that his life would be shortened. “How do you tell a complete stranger that the life they created for themselves has been shattered?” asked the doctor. “And yet, this is something we do every day.”

Other workshop goers spoke from the perspective of patients and loved ones of patients. One woman told the story of a friend whose vague health problems (trouble swallowing, fatigue) erupted while on vacation in rural Vermont. Far away from the patient’s regular doctors, the two discovered a clinic tucked in the mountains close to where they were staying. At this clinic, where there were only two dozen beds, all empty, the patient was treated attentively, her condition addressed immediately. The workshop attendee said that, though we have some of the best doctors here in New York City, they don’t always have the time to administer the care and services that a patient requires and to listen to patients’ stories the way they should.

From these divergent perspectives arose common themes: the need for more time during visits, better communication between doctors and their patients, and a revision of the cost structure in health care – which creates unnecessary bureaucracy that sometimes impedes treatment for suffering patients. Due to the intimate context of health discussions, only through mutual emotional support for doctors and patients, and through adequate financial support from the health care system, can those touched by sickness feel heard and valued.

At the start of the workshop, Charon had quoted the poet John Donne who wrote, “As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude.” Through this day-long dialogue of what ails care in America, several attendees expressed that they would continue to share and listen to narratives of illness and recovery. The care of the sick unfolds in stories, and the day’s conversations helped caregivers and those who receive care feel less alone.