Narrative Medicine Monday: To Seize, To Grasp

Writer Heather Kirn Lanier describes her daughter’s seizures in “To Seize, To Grasp.” Lanier begins the flash essay outlining her infant daughter’s first seizure: “not the worst one, although it brought the biggest shock.” Lanier relays what it’s like to be thrust into the medical world and terminology of a new diagnosis: “New traumas gift new glossaries. Words become boxes into which you can pack the pain.” She achingly describes the pain of watching her child seize, unable to do anything but wait: “But of course he could only do what I could do, which was inject medicine and wait.” Lanier closes the piece with her daughter’s worst seizure, which was not the longest. What was it that made this last one so frightening for Lanier? Can you relate to grasping onto that which can be lost at any second?

Writing Prompt: Have you been suddenly thrust into the medical world because of your own illness or a loved one’s diagnosis? What was it like to learn a new vocabulary and way of interacting with the medical system? What did you find most challenging or surprising? Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: In Shock

Although I’ve never met her, author and critical care physician Rana Awdish on some level feels familiar. Not only are we both part of a supportive online group of physician-writers, but I just finished reading her wrenching memoir, “In Shock: My Journey from Death to Recovery and the Redemptive Power of Hope.” Awdish’s gripping account of her near-death experience, subsequent hospitalization in her own ICU and revelations about the shortcomings in both support for and education of medical providers in the realm of empathy are illuminating. Her book is infused with challenge and hope and a call to transform the way we train physicians and care for patients.

Awdish is thrust from the world of providing medicine into that of receiving it – a patient under her own colleagues’ care. The contrast of these positions of power and vulnerability are striking and Awdish describes the jarring experience and her own enlightenment as she pivots between these two roles. She shares with the reader her revelations regarding how we provide medical care to those in crisis and inspires us to find a better way.

I was particularly convicted by Awdish’s insight into how medical training encourages physicians to suppress many of our emotions. She traces this ideal back to the father of modern medicine, Sir William Osler, who encouraged “‘aequanimitas.’ Osler regarded this trait as the premier quality of a physician. It represented an imperturbability that was described as manifesting in ‘coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril.'”

Awdish asserts that as physicians “we aren’t trained to see our patients. We are trained to see pathology. We are taught to forage with scalpels and forceps for an elusive diagnosis buried within obfuscating tissues. We excavate alongside our mentors in delicate, deliberate layers, test by test, attempting to unearth disease. The true relationship is forged between the doctor and the disease.” Do you agree with Awdish’s assessment? Why or why not?

If you’re a physician, if you’re a patient: read this book. Discuss it with your colleagues, mull over it with your book club. The questions Awdish raises, the challenges she poses are vital to improving the way we care for each other in our most acute times of need.

Writing Prompt: If you’re a physician, did you learn to develop “aequanimitas” through your training? Did you feel this trait was a requirement, overtly stated or otherwise, to be a “good physician?” Have you yourself ever been a patient feeling, like Awdish, “powerless in a way that is impossible to imagine, from a privileged position of wholeness and well-being?” Awdish lists biting phrases that were directly said to her or that she overheard when she was a patient. Have you experienced similarly painful words from a medical provider? Have you said such words to a patient before? Try writing from both the patient and the medical provider’s perspectives. Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Baptism by Fire

Pediatric Intensivist Gwen Erkonen’s fast-paced essay “Baptism by Fire” was recently highlighted in one of my favorite online creative nonfiction journals, Hippocampus Magazine. The piece begins with Erkonen sitting in Grand Rounds, a newly minted attending physician. Erkonen deftly describes the apprehension and weight of responsibility all physicians experience when, after a decade of training, they are finally in charge: “Four years of medical school, three years of pediatric residency, and three more years as a pediatric critical care fellow. My time as a medical apprentice is done. I no longer have an attending physician to help me with my decision-making. I am solely responsible for my patients.”

Erkonen’s pager calls her to an excruciating emergency: a toddler with extensive life-threatening burns. The reader is thrust into the dire situation with her as she assumes care of the critical patient, running the resuscitation efforts of the medical team and communicating with the young girl’s mother in the waiting room.

Erkonen not only relays her own inner turmoil during this first challenge of her new career, she also conveys her keen observations of the other participants. The surgery resident she first meets in the trauma bay “looks cool and in control with his hands folded across his chest and a broad-based stance, but I can tell from his shaking voice he’s not sure what to do.” Erkonen’s details describing the patient’s devastated young mother gives us insight that the family’s narrative is multi-layered and tragic even before this catastrophic event: “She starts to sob, and buries her head in the older lady’s chest. Then I notice that she has a disposable Bic lighter in her hand. She keeps flicking it so that flames jump from the spark wheel…. I notice that her hands are dirty. Not from the fire but because she hasn’t showered in several days.”

Most any physician can empathize with Erkonen’s inner dialogue. Years of training doesn’t negate the adrenaline-infused uncertainty when you first encounter the incredible weight of trying to save another’s life: “Feeling like an idiot, I nonetheless plow forward.” Erkonen is unflinchingly honest in her description of the events and her vivid details leave the reader breathless, exhausted and empathetic, as if we were watching them unfold on a medical drama, yet responsible along with her.

Writing Prompt: Think of a time when you were in a new position that held intense responsibility. Maybe it was your first week as an attending physician or a new job managing a large part of your workplace. Maybe it was your first hours as a new parent. Describe your own inner dialogue and your perception of others you interacted with during that time. Alternatively, try re-writing Erkonen’s essay from the point of view of the surgical resident, the burn nurse, the patient’s mother, the priest, the trauma surgeon. Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Air Hunger

The narrator visits her mother in the hospital in “Air Hunger,” a striking short essay found in University of Virginia’s narrative medicine journal Hospital Drive

Two months have passed since she last saw her mother, but in the interim the narrator notes her mother has “become a patient.” The details the writer shares give us a glimpse into how her mother’s illness has changed her over time. Her mother barely touches the lunch tray beside her hospital bed: “She picks at her food, but it’s air that she’s hungry for.” The narrator wants to ask her mom how she feels, but already knows the answer: “I can see what I see, I can hear what I hear.”

Writing Prompt: Have you witnessed a loved one’s deterioration of health over time? What was it like to see them in one light and weeks or months later note a dramatic change? Do you remember a moment when they became, either to themselves, to you or to others, “a patient?” Write for 10 minutes. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Feeding Tube

In “Feeding Tube” author Susan Kelly-DeWitt relays a memory of paper birds that a patient’s family hung over the hospital bed “wild tropical birds, macaws and toucans, parrots and cockatoo.” The visual that Kelly-DeWitt provides is vivid. The reader comes away feeling that humanity reigns over the mechanical devices that tend to dominate the hospital landscape.

I remember very little about the physical details of the critical care hospital room where I participated in my first code as a medical student. I do remember sitting by the resident physician as he wrote his note in the patient’s chart at the nurses’ station just after the man had died. I looked across the desk into the patient’s glass-walled room, my eyes fixed on an elaborate dream catcher hung carefully, just over his bed.

Writing Prompt: The hospital can sometimes feel a like a sterile, mechanical place. Think of a moment or an item, like Kelly-DeWitt’s paper birds, that struck you as out of place or particularly telling about a certain patient, their family and their life. Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: The Dilemma Doctors Face

The spotlight has recently been on the opioid epidemic ravaging our country. As a primary care physician, I’m acutely aware of this issue and the challenges it poses to individuals, medical providers and the public health system as a whole. NPR’s The Takeaway recently did a program on understanding this crisis and approached it from many angles. Dr. Danielle Ofri wrote short a piece in Glamour magazine that gives a primary care physician’s perspective. In “The Dilemma Doctors Face,” Ofri notes that chronic pain is very real but differs from other chronic disease in that there is no definitive test or measurement for pain, it is subjective. “Chronic pain is real. It can ruin people’s lives. But the anvil of addiction and death can’t be ignored.” Ofri asserts that one challenge is that a system that doesn’t often pay for other ways of treating pain, such as physical therapy, acupuncture and massage, makes it easier for the medical provider to “just write a prescription.” Can you relate?

Writing Prompt: Have you or a loved one struggled with chronic pain? What were the challenges you faced when trying to find appropriate treatment? Have you or a loved one struggled with opioid addiction? What was the first sign that this had become an issue? If you prescribe opioid pain medications, how do you approach counseling patients about the risks and benefits of taking these medications? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in having this discussion? Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Lithium and the Absence of Desire

Virginia Chase Sutton’s wrenching poem “Lithium and the Absence of Desire” warns of what may be lost in taking a necessary medication. She deftly describes the world before starting lithium and the reader is entranced along with her, “dozing in light and soaked color.” Despite side effects causing a graying of her world, the author dutifully takes “the medication as prescribed.” Written in second person, the reader is drawn into her longing for what she has lost and together we collectively struggle in vain: “Strain all you will but you have given desire away.”

Writing Prompt: This poem describes a negative, even devastating, side effect of a medication, yet the writer recognizes there was “No choice since you must take the pills.” Have you experienced a minor or life-altering side effect from a medication? Describe life before and after starting the medication. Did you keep taking the medication as prescribed, or did you search for a different treatment? Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Primum Non Nocere:

Emma Barnard is a visual artist and researcher focusing on fine art and medicine. Her latest installment, “Primum Non Nocere,” reflects the patient experience. Barnard’s work is influenced by her own interactions with the medical world as a patient and her research into this arena, including Michel Foucault’s term ‘medical gaze,’ used to “denote the dehumanizing medical separation of the patient’s body from the patient’s person or identity.”

I’m interested in Barnard’s method of creating art, where she follows a patient into the exam room and questions them right after, producing a drawing based on their response. She notes that many of the physicians are surprised at the resulting artwork: “During the consultation process patients show little emotion; it’s quite difficult to read how they really feel about the impact of the words spoken during the clinical encounter.”

Barnard also incorporates the physician and surgeon perspectives. Could you relate to her images of a physician’s experience in a busy clinic practice?  I could certainly identify with the depiction of others superseding the “self” and various demands of work and home life feeling compartmentalized. Do you agree with the neurosurgeons’ statement that as physicians we view a division between us and patients and that we have to understand this alienation “if we are to find ways to soothe it and become connected to our patients and to the essence of medicine?”

Writing Prompt: As a patient, have you ever experienced Foucault’s ‘medical gaze,’ where you perceived a provider as seeing you only as a body, rather than recognizing your personhood? What did that feel like? As a medical provider, have you ever caught yourself interacting this way with a patient? How can we work to overcome this tendency? Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Erasure

Student and poet Thomas Nguyen writes of memories and loss in “Erasure.” In his poem Nguyen is instructional, warning how time affects our connection to those we’ve lost: “Accept that time makes things distant, that his absence doesn’t bleed into your memories as much as it used to.” There are only a few significant people in my life who have died, but I can identify with Nguyen who needs to try “harder and harder to remember the last time” he saw his mentor.

Nguyen notes that the patient speaks of his melaonmas as if they were part of his garden: “My dermatologist taught me how to care for them.” Nguyen goes on to contrast this with the green moss on the windows of his home. Do you agree with Nguyen that “life always adds?” Do you find this contention comforting or suffocating, or both?

Writing Prompt: Have you spent time with a loved one or patient who was nearing death? If time has passed, how have your memories of this person been affected? Recall the last time you saw them. Outline the details, like Nguyen’s memory of “neatly-pressed khakis.” Write for 10 minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Disaster Relief

Today’s Narrative Medicine Monday is a bit different. In light of recent catastrophic hurricanes in the U.S., there have been many stories about disaster relief and people stepping up to help in ways they’re not used to. One such person is Dr. Jennifer McQuade. This NPR story describes how McQuade, a melanoma oncologist, dropped off basic supplies to a shelter following hurricane Harvey and discovered the medical aid there severely lacking. She then found herself in charge of a medical shelter, enlisting the help of other physicians and medical providers via a physician moms social media group. Often in such situations we’re called upon to help each other in ways we might not imagine possible. As Texan Claudia Solis notes in the story, “There’s a kindness…. They’re your neighbor, and you have to help, and it’s beautiful.”

Writing Prompt: Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you had to provide medical care beyond your normal area of expertise? Have you ever been the recipient of such care? Describe the situation and how you felt. How did it bring you closer to the people around you? Write for 10 minutes. 

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