Narrative Medicine Monday: Line of Beauty

Arlene Weiner writes of her post-surgical incision in “Line of Beauty,” a poem featured in the online narrative medicine journal Intima. The narrator’s physicians describe her incision site as “beautiful.” She notes the young surgeon admired her incision site “with feeling” but then left her undressed. The reader gets the impression he is appreciating his handiwork but forgetting about the patient it belongs to. Have you ever felt that way about an interaction with a medical provider?

I like how Weiner contrasts this surgery, an “insertion,” with her previous ones, including “a chunk of back punished for harboring promiscuous cells.”

Writing prompt: Think about the different words we use to describe medical procedures or ailments. How might a patient’s description differ from that of a medical provider? Does it matter what words are used? Have you ever had a doctor use a word that surprised you? Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Going Solo

Nurse and writer Amanda Anderson describes the final moments of caring for a patient in the ICU in “Going Solo“.

Anderson opens the piece noting that she decides to scrub the patient’s teeth clean. Why do you think she’s determined to complete this simple act?

The author comments that this passing feels different than others because she doesn’t also have the patient’s family to nurse through the process. Her actions are per protocol, “governed only by a set of instructions:
1.  Administer pain dose once, prior to extubation.
2.  Extubate patient.
3.  Administer pain dose every three minutes for respiratory rate greater than twenty,
or obvious signs of pain, as needed.
4.  Notify house staff at time of asystole.”

How do you feel when you read through the protocol that Anderson follows? How do you think she feels and how does she convey that through her writing?

I appreciate Anderson’s candidness in immersing us in her thought process. She plays jazz for him, then realizes, what if he hates jazz? As medical providers, we only get a snippet of a patient’s life. If you’re a medical provider, have you ever wondered about a specific patient’s life outside of the hospital? How could that information inform their care? As a patient, what do you wish your medical providers knew about who you are?

Writing prompt: As a medical provider, think about a protocol you follow, a procedure or list of instructions you adhere to in a certain situation to provide care. List the steps. Now consider an unwritten protocol, such as a nurse in caring for family members throughout their loved one’s death in an ICU. List the steps. How do they compare? Alternatively, think about an encounter you’ve had in the medical world: a ten minute doctor’s office visit, visiting a friend who is hospitalized, getting or giving an immunization. Imagine the broader life of the person who was giving or getting that medical care. Consider their life narrative. Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: The Heroism of Incremental Care

As a primary care physician myself, I found Atul Gawande’s new article “The Heroism of Incremental Care” encouraging and empowering. The New Yorker piece highlights the importance of longitudinal care between a patient and their primary care provider.

When Gawande visits a headache clinic in Massachusetts, the physician there tells him she starts by listening to the patient: “You ask them to tell the story of their headache and then you stay very quiet for a long time.” What have you found is the most important component of a physician-patient encounter? If you are a provider, do you feel you’re always able to listen to the patient’s full story? If you’re a patient, do you feel listened to when you see your doctor?

When Gawande visits the primary care clinic in Boston, he’s told the reason primary care is important to bettering patient health is due to the “relationship”. Do you agree? Have you had a relationship with a primary care provider that has invariably improved your health over the years? If you are a primary care provider, has this been your experience with patients?

Writing Prompt: Gawande writes of the clinic he visits: “At any given moment, someone there might be suturing a laceration, lancing an abscess, aspirating a gouty joint, biopsying a suspicious skin lesion, managing a bipolar-disorder crisis, assessing a geriatric patient who had taken a fall, placing an intrauterine contraceptive device, or stabilizing a patient who’d had an asthma attack.” Think about the last time you saw your primary care provider. Write about that visit in the present tense, then project a decade or two into the future. Imagine how that visit, and many others like it, might have made a difference to your health decades from now. Write for 10 minutes.


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Narrative Medicine Monday: Monday Morning

Audrey Shafer, an anesthesiologist and mother, writes of medicine and motherhood in her mesmerizing poem “Monday Morning“. Highlighting two simple moments at home and at work, Shafer explores the contrast and commonalities between motherhood and her work in medicine. No wonder I love this piece!

What do you think of the juxtaposition of the narrator’s young son and the cool sterile environment of the operating room? The OR is a glaringly lit, predictably ordered, pristine place. As a mother, I could picture the incredible contrast of her preschooler son’s soft body clutching his favorite blanket in the dim early morning. A home with young children is often unpredictable, littered and intimate.

Shafer comments that the one who is exposed and vulnerable in this poem is the author herself. Would you agree? What do you learn about her as a person and as a working mother by reading this poem?

Writing Prompt: Think of a moment at work that reminded you of or seemed in direct contrast to a moment at home. How does your personal life inform your work and vice versa? Write for 10 minutes.


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Narrative Medicine Monday: Family Summons

When rotating through the Intensive Care Unit in medical school or residency, one of the most significant skills learned, in addition to adjusting mechanical ventilation settings and how to run a code, is how to conduct a “family conference”. This is where loved ones, preferably including the patient’s designated medical decision proxy, gather to discuss the patient’s status, prognosis and treatment plan. As these patients are severely, sometimes suddenly, ill, these can be very challenging conversations. 

In “Family Summons” Amy Cowan illustrates how she was surprised to have a patient’s family gather in the middle of the night, wanting to speak with her as their family patriarch’s physician. Her piece highlights how important it is to listen and extract the true identity of the patient, the life they lived beyond the ICU. Establishing this portrait can help inform the care team as well as free the family members to make decisions in line with what their loved one would want.

Writing Prompt: Have you ever attended or conducted an important medical family conference? How was it run? If not, can you imagine what questions you might ask to best get to know the patient? Think about if you were the patient in the ICU; who would you want to gather on your behalf and what might they say when asked about you and your life, what’s important to you? Write for ten minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Published!

Starting the year off sharing some great news! I recently received in the mail the Fall 2016 Edition of OUHSC’s Blood and Thunder Journal, which includes two of my essays. I’ve had several pieces published in online journals but there is a special kind of excitement that comes from seeing your name in print on a tangible page. I’m humbled that two of my favorite shorts “Expectant” and “Burst” found a home in this narrative medicine collection.

“Expectant” chronicles the very first delivery I witnessed. Obstetrics was a revelation to me as a young medical student, especially never having had children myself. I was in awe of the entire process and this short essay reveals my own insecurities as I was christened into the world of medicine.

“Burst” is about my first continuity delivery in residency training: a pregnancy meant to be followed throughout all nine months to completion. I was a new physician and had much to learn about the unpredictable nature of obstetrics.

One of my writing goals for 2017 is to make significant progress on a book-length collection of narrative medicine essays.  I’m starting the year off taking Creative Nonfiction’s online course “Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal”. Finding time to edit and submit my work has been a continual challenge but writing classes provide encouragement and structure to make the time, harness the energy and muster the gumption to keep at it. I’m eager to let go of the draining and perfectionist tendencies of 2016 and write on in 2017. Holding a palpable culmination of my writing efforts is an encouraging way to embark on a new year and I’m grateful.



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Narrative Medicine Monday: Thanksgiving Dinner

Allie Gips’ striking poem “Thanksgiving Dinner” profiles her grandparents as they suffer from dementia and recurrent cancer. Gips writes that there is “there is a forgetting that is wrenching and then there is a forgetting that must seem like some kind of forgiveness”. Gips expresses sadness watching her grandfather relive the disappointment at finding the sparkling cider bottle empty again and again. This simple act of recurrent forgetting serves as a rending reminder of the cost of his illness to family gathered at the Thanksgiving dinner table. 

Writing Prompt: Have you witnessed someone suffer the effects of dementia? Think of a particular incident, like Gips’ empty bottle, that struck a chord with you, illustrating the defecits. Write for 10 minutes. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Close Encounter

Abraham Verghese writes about his experience treating victims of hurricane Katrina in his essay “Close Encounter“. The experience reminds him of working overseas in India and Ethiopia, where “the careful listening, the thorough exam, the laying of hands was the therapy.” Have you ever been in a situation providing medical care when this type of personal touch was the primary treatment? What does taking away many of the medical resources that we take for granted reveal about the other important aspects of medicine? 
Verghese goes on to describe a dignified man in his 70’s who has a chilling tale of survival. Verghese reflects on what it means to say and to hear “I’m so sorry.” What do you think it means to this man to hear those words? 

Writing Prompt: Verghese begins and ends his piece mentioning the “armor” providers strap on for challenging work shifts. Have you tried to wear such armor in your practice? What was the result? As a patient have you been cared for by medical professionals who seem to wear this armor? How did they come across? Have you ever been “wounded” by a patient interaction? Do you agree with Verghese  that the willingness to be wounded may be all we have to offer as providers? 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: You Will Feel A Pinch

With a title like “You Will Feel A Pinch“, I couldn’t help but read Marylyn Grigas’ poem in the Bellevue Literary Review. Whenever I’m doing an injection with a numbing medication for a procedure, I say exactly this: “You will feel a pinch, then a burn.” This is just how she begins.

There are so many phrases that I use automatically and repetitively with patients on a daily basis. Leaving the room for the patient to change for a physical exam, I inform: “The gown opens in the back, the paper drape unfolds over your legs.” Performing a Pap smear and gynecologic exam, I explain I’m going to “use my other hand to feel your uterus and ovaries and make sure I don’t feel any masses or anything abnormal.” I listen to the lungs on the back and ask the patient to “take deep breaths through your mouth”, then as I move to auscultate the lub-dub of the heart on the chest I ask them to “breathe normally.” I once had a patient laugh and reply, “What does that mean?” These phrases come out of our mouths, rote habit, without thought as to what a patient, who might be hearing those words for the first time, might perceive. 

After much trial and error you discover what tends to work to communicate with patients in a way they can understand. You begin to anticipate the questions they’ll ask, such as if the gown opens in the back or the front, and preempt with answers. But I think over time, over years, it becomes such second nature that the words fall out without pausing to think about the meaning.

Two years ago I had a skin lesion on my back that was bothering me and I asked my doctor to “burn” it off with liquid nitrogen. This type of so-called cryotherapy is a treatment I perform on others regularly. I always warn “this may sting” and have had incredibly varied responses, ranging from people barely flinching to  crying out in pain. When my own turn came I was acutely surprised at how painful it was, much more than just a “sting”, both during the application and for several days after. I developed a new empathy for the recipients of my cryotherapy treatment going forward. I shudder when I think of all the coaching phrases confidently uttered to my patients in labor a decade before I experienced labor pains myself. 

Why do you think Grigas opens her poem with this oft used warning? What does this phrase seem to make her think of? How does her poem evolve and what do you think it’s about?

Writing Prompt: Think about something you say regularly to patients, almost automatically. Unpack the phrase. Imagine yourself in the patient’s position hearing this for the first time and write from their perspective. What other things might come to mind when a patient hears this phrase? If you’re not a medical professional, can you think of sentences you’ve heard from doctors or nurses that were confusing or funny or easily misunderstood? Write about this for 10 minutes. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Jefferson’s Children

We get a glimpse into both the patient and the physician’s perspective of a manic presentation in Maureen Hirthler’s “Jefferson’s Children“. Her dramatic opening (“If you don’t do something right now, I’m going to hurt my children.”) inserts the reader into the mindset of the patient, desperately asking for help to make sense of her racing and disturbing thoughts. As the emergency physician enters the scene, the narrative shifts and the reader becomes the provider, trying to make a definitive diagnosis and determine an appropriate treatment plan. 

The physician feels the patient should be admitted for psychiatric evaluation and treatment but is unable to find a bed for her and meets resistance from both the patient and her superior. Can you feel her frustration? Have you ever been in a similar situation?

The lack of appropriate, affordable and available psychiatric treatment has been discussed and debated much in recent years. What are the barriers you’ve noted to getting yourself, your loved ones or your patients the mental health care they need? If you could create the ideal mental health system, what would that look like?
Writing Prompt: Try writing from the first person perspective of a manic patient first arriving at the hospital or clinic. What about a severely depressed patient? A very anxious patient? Now write the same scene from the perspective of the medical provider (physician or therapist). How does the scene change?

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