Narrative Medicine Monday: The Last Heartbeat

Cortney Davis’ “The Last Heartbeat” explores her competing identities as daughter and nurse at her dying mother’s bedside. Davis opens the poem as she holds her mother’s hand, counting her last heartbeats, witnessing her last breath. She ends with greater questions of life and soul as she walks with a friend through a cemetery.

Writing Prompt: If you’ve been at the bedside of a loved one as they died, what do you remember most? What have you forgotten? What about at the bedside of a terminal patient? Did this experience prompt greater questions about the soul? Write for 10 minutes.

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Published: Nine Lives


I’m thrilled to announce my essay “Fired” appears in a new book, Nine Lives: A Life in Ten Minutes Anthologyforthcoming from Chop Suey Books Books in June. Valley Haggard, of Life in 10 Minutes, is the mastermind and editor behind this exciting project. I can’t wait to get my hands on this compilation! You can purchase your own copy of Nine Lives, which is made up of short essays that follow the “ages and stages of life” online on June 14 from Chop Suey Books.

My piece that appears in this book highlights a moment I shared with my grandpa “Gar” during the last days of his life. In honor of Narrative Medicine Monday and this short personal piece, today’s writing prompt will focus on hospice.

Writing Prompt: Have you spent time with someone on hospice or near the end of their life? What do you remember the most? What have you forgotten? If you’re a medical provider, how does caring for someone as a medical professional compare with caring for a loved one at the end of life? If the experience was overwhelming, try focusing on the details: a glance, a thought, a smell, an item, a phrase. Write for 10 minutes. 

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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: 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: 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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