Narrative Medicine Monday: Of Mothers and Monkeys

Caitlin Kuehn’s essay “Of Mothers and Monkeys” draws parallels between her research work with macaque monkeys and her mother receiving treatment for breast cancer in the same hospital. As her mother starts chemotherapy, Kuehn “rotate[s] between the animal ward and the human ward.”

Kuehn wrestles with the ethical ambiguity faced in animal research. Thinking of her own mother’s reaction to chemotherapy, she darts off to her work in the research lab, wondering “what animal first shared with my mother that sudden fear of a throat closing in… I realize that I—as a student, with very little power but a whole lot of responsibility—am complicit in a moral choice I have still not taken the time to make. Some days it is hard to remind myself that medical research has a purpose. Some days it is as clear as cancer. Some days I just do not know.”

When Kuehn’s mother needs injections to help boost her immune system after suffering from a serious sepsis infection, though Kuehn “could do a subcutaneous injection in the dark,” she becomes “shatteringly nervous” whenever she has to give her mother injections; the familiar activity takes on a different tone.

Kuehn’s mother begins to rely on her to answer medical questions, but Kuehn’s scientific expertise is limited to “what I have learned in my undergraduate science classes, or here at the lab. All of it applicable only to non-human mammals, or else too theoretical to be of any use for as intimate a need as this. I have no good answers.” I was struck by the fact that often, even for those of us who have extensive medical knowledge and training, we still lack “good answers” to those questions posed by suffering loved ones.

Kuehn has a strong reaction when her mother declares that she’s fighting her cancer for Kuehn and her sister: “She’s pushed her will to persevere off onto my sister and me. It’s too much pressure to be somebody else’s reason.” Have you ever been somebody else’s reason for fighting for survival? Did you have the same reaction as Kuehn to that kind of pressure?

Writing Prompt: At one point Kuehn responds to Domingo’s convulsions in the same comforting way she does when her own mother’s throat begins to swell during her chemotherapy: You’re going to be okay.  When a patient or loved one has been faced with a particularly challenging moment of illness, is there a mantra you’ve repeated to them? To yourself? Did it help? Write about the situation. Alternatively, reflect on Kuehn’s statement that “death is a condition of life.” Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Anatomy Lesson

Poet Nellie Hill illuminates the process of learning anatomy in her Bellevue Literary Review poem, “Anatomy Lesson.” She notes that to “understand the heart you’ve got to memorize…” I remember searching for ways to memorize, as one professor put it, the “firehose” of information required as a new medical student. Anatomy is especially daunting, with all the blood vessels, nerves, muscle origins and insertions. Dissecting cadavers in anatomy lab is a rite of passage for every medical student, but we also drew pictures, color-coded organ systems, made up songs and stories to help us remember the essential information that is the human body. Hill starts with memorization, but takes the reader on a journey down the “snake path” of the body “to where thoughts become memories or dreams.” I like the imagery of “anatomy stacked like a ladder from your toes” and how Hill hints that the functional organ itself may also hold an intangible purpose.

Writing Prompt: Think about when you first learned anatomy. Even if you’re not in the healthcare field and never took a more intensive course in the subject, we all learn about basic bones and organs as children. Did learning about anatomy help you to see the body, and your own body, differently? When was the last time you thought about anatomy? What are your thoughts on how the physical body or certain organs might be connected to a greater or hidden purpose (acupressure points, the mind-body connection)? Write for ten minutes.

 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Someone Else’s Pain

Brenna Working Lemieux’s poem “Someone Else’s Pain” illustrates the struggle to understand what others are feeling, how challenging it can be to fully grasp another’s suffering. The patient experiences “some driven-screw anguish that flares” that they attempt to explain. Lemieux can only “nod or shake [her] head.”

I can relate to Lemieux; medical providers regularly face the challenge to decipher a patient’s explanation of illness or pain. I delivered babies for many years before I had my own children. After I experienced labor for the first time myself, I cringed recalling many of the comments, modeled after other medical providers, I had made to laboring patients prior to experiencing that pain myself. I had been sympathetic to their pain but could not embody empathy in the same way I could after I had gone through a similar experience. I had no reference point to the crushing agony of contractions that I would later understand. Of course, we can’t fully experience everything our patients go through. However, we can become better at listening and responding to the story they are trying to tell.

Lemieux likens listening to the patient describe their pain to the focus she had in art class, “trying in vain to capture” an image of her hand. Her poem illustrates the nuances and importance of narrative to medicine, the need to hone our listening and storytelling skills to improve the relationship between patient and physician and, ultimately, medical care as a whole.

Writing Prompt: What is the biggest challenge in understanding another person’s pain or illness? Have you ever tried to describe such an experience to a friend or healthcare provider? Think of a time you were on the explaining or the listening end of such a conversation. Write for 10 minutes.

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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: 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: Wernicke-Korsakoff

Poet and medical student Sarah Shirley describes an evolving interaction with a patient in “Wernicke-Korsakoff.” The patient initially finds complaint with everything: “the too soft too hard bed, the lunch that came with only one spoon though clearly two spoons were required.” Shirley struggles to connect with the disgruntled patient, who clearly wants nothing to do with her as an intrusive medical student.

Throughout my medical training and career I’ve encountered patients, like in “Wernicke-Korsakoff,” where “everything is thrown back.” They were angry at their disease, angry at the medical providers, angry at the system, angry at the world. At times, I’ve been one of those patients myself. There’s no doubt health and illness affect our mood. Many of those who are suffering build a shell to cocoon themselves off from the damaging world. Often they are rightfully skeptical of a medical system that has many failings. Shirley finally breaks through to her patient in the end, after searching for the right connecting point. 

Writing Prompt: Think about a time you were sick. How did being ill affect your mood and interactions with others? Were you inclined to cling to others for support or did you find yourself “raging against the world?” Perhaps you experienced both. What about a time when you were caring for someone who was sick? Did they allow you to connect with them right away or was it a struggle? Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: An Expert in Fear

Author Susan Gubar writes about cancer making her “An Expert in Fear” in her timely essay. She asserts that this anxiety has become more acute in the recent political climate, with debates about major changes to healthcare, Medicaid and insurance coverage in the forefront of our national discourse.

Gubar contends that cancer fears fuel other fears and that cancer patients become “experts in fear.” If you’ve dealt with cancer, has this been your experience? She also highlights the detrimental impact fear can have on our health, and that severe financial distress has been found to be a risk factor for mortality in cancer patients. Gubar feels there is no appropriate word for the dread she experiences today. It is a “fear of fear spiraling into vortexes of stunning trepidation” and has, in fact, become all-pervasive and metastatic. 

Writing Prompt: What fears do you harbor related to health and illness? Have you found that the political climate impacts that anxiety? Do you agree with Gubar that fear is pervasive in today’s world? Write for 10 minutes.

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Mothers in Medicine

I’ve long been a fan of Mothers in Medicine, a collaborative blog of supportive mama docs. Many of the contributors are still in medical training and the community is made up of various different specialities. I’m delighted to come onboard as a regular contributor to MiM. You can find my posts under “MP.” I’m so grateful for this community of mama docs who get it. If you’re a mom or momma-to-be and at any point in your medical training or career, I recommend checking out Mothers in Medicine as the candid posts are honest and instructive about the challenges of holding these two important roles. 

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Published: Timeline

I’ve tried to write a piece like Timeline several times. It’s simply a chronicle of my typical work day, but, in the past, I never was able to get it just right. It didn’t flow sufficiently, wasn’t a clear reflection of the exhaustion I feel at the end of the day. 

When I discovered Pulse’s “More Voices” column theme this month was “Stress and Burnout,” I felt compelled to finish this piece for submission. It was initially much longer, but I think the confines of the short word count (less than 400) was helpful in honing it to only the necessities. Previous versions of this essay were written in first person or third person. Second person, I’ve discovered, suits the purpose of the piece. My goal is to place the reader in the shoes of the primary care physician, feel the weight of her day, the exhaustion inherent in the constant churn of a general practitioner’s practice. I hope this piece provides a snapshot of a day-in-the-life of a family physician, and evokes a thoughtful reflection on the state of our health care system and the very real crisis of physician burnout. 

I’m grateful to Pulse for publishing Timeline and for their regular promotion of issues relevant to patients and medical providers through narrative medicine poetry and prose.

Writing prompt: When do you feel most stressed at work? When do you feel energized? Have you witnessed signs of burnout in your colleagues or your own medical provider? List your own timeline of a typical workday. How do you feel when you read it back? Write for 10 minutes. 

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