Narrative Medicine Monday: What You Don’t Know

Today’s Narrative Medicine Monday is a bit different in that I’m posting an excerpt from a radio show rather than a sample of poetry or prose. Stories of medicine, health and illness are found in all types of art, including written form, oral stories, music and visual mediums.

This American Life is a prolific radio show that covers widely varied topics in a heartfelt, honest and often humorous way. Each show has a theme and this past week’s episode was titled “In Defense of Ignorance.” In the first act, “What You Don’t Know,” writer and producer Lulu Wang tells her family story of deciding to keep test results of the most dire news from her grandmother. Her family’s Chinese heritage influences the stance they take in keeping her grandmother in the dark about her terminal diagnosis. Wang, raised mostly in America and very close to her grandmother, doesn’t agree with this position but, at her family’s request, complies. 

Wang’s family story brings up issues of bioethics, cultural norms and how bad news affects health and illness. How might cultural norms influence the very standards of bioethics in a particular case? Do you agree with the family decision to keep the grandmother in the dark about her terminal diagnosis? Why or why not? Do you think her grandmother actually knew all along? Spoiler alert: Do you think not telling Wang’s grandmother contributed to her surviving despite her dire diagnosis? Wang mentions the Chinese belief of the connection between the mind and body. What are your thoughts on this connection?

Writing Prompt: Think about your own family dynamics and cultural norms. How do you think this has shaped your own views on health and illness? Can you think of a time this construct specifically influenced your medical decision making? Alternatively, think about the connection between the mind and body. Do you think one influences the other? How? If you had a terminal diagnosis, would you want to know? Why or why not? Write for ten minutes. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: E.R.: Port-au-PrinceĀ 

H. Lee Kagan reflects on one memorable night working in a Haitian Emergency Room in “E.R.: Port-au-Prince“. What is Kagan expecting of his experience? When I’ve worked overseas, often in a wholly different medical system and in a resource limited environment, I’ve had similar anxieties, drenched in insecurity. Usually I come to realize I was worrying about all the wrong things. Kagan finds himself unsure how to respond when a patient who was raped arrives in the E.R. He questions himself after this encounter. Do you think he should have done something differently? What did Kagan learn about himself?

Writing Prompt: Have you experienced working or living across cultures or in a different system than the one you’re used to? What was different? Did you learn something about yourself or about medicine? Consider re-writing this piece from the point of view of the patient, the nurse who steps in or the volunteer nurse who can’t sleep. Does this give you new insight? 

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