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: 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: 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: A View from the Edge

Dr. Rana Awdish is a critical care physician turned advocate for training in compassionate care following her incredible near death experience in her own hospital. Her essay “A View from the Edge” in the New England Journal of Medicine provides an overview of her 2008 experience as a critically ill patient cared for by her colleagues.

In her book “In Shock,” out this October by St. Martin’s Press, she outlines her harrowing near-death illness and recovery. I’m eager to read Awdish’s book and hear more about how her experience led to advocacy for “compassionate, coordinated care.” In her NEJM essay she describes how “small things would gut me. Receiving a bill for the attempted resuscitation of the baby, for example…. A trivial oversight, by a department ostensibly not involved in patient care, had the potential to bring me to my knees.” After recovering, Awdish channels her grueling patient experience into a drive to transform the way we receive and provide medical care. She contends “we need to reflect on times when our care has deviated from what we intended — when we haven’t been who we hoped to be. We have to be transparent and allow the failure to reshape us, to help us reset our intention and mold our future selves.”

Writing Prompt: Have you noted an erosion of empathy among medical providers? If so, think of a specific example and write about how you felt as the patient. If you’re a medical provider, have you ever been cared for by colleagues at your own hospital? What was it like to be on the “other side,” as a patient? Did you come away from the experience with new knowledge and empathy that you then incorporated into your own practice? 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: #3 In Line

Eliza Callard imagines a lung transplant in her vivid poem “#3 In Line.” She begins by describing the surgeon’s actions lifting “the sodden lungs out,” but then pauses to wonder about the patient: “Where will she be for all this?” Callard touches on the desperation following any transplant to get the foreign object to “stay, stay,” to trick a body into accepting an imported organ as one of its own. 

Writing Prompt: Imagine an organ transplant: liver, lung, kidney. Write about the transplant from several different perspectives: that of the patient, her body, the transplant surgeon, the patient who donated the organ, even the organ itself. Write for 10 minutes. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Bedside Rounds

John L. Wright’s poem, “Bedside Rounds,” speaks to the apprentice-like training of physicians. It is a passing on of skills from the experienced to the inexperienced, from the knowledgeable to the clinically naive. Most medical students, unless they have a background in another medical field, have little to no real experience in the hands-on component of medicine. They take years of study – biology, anatomy, pathophysiology – and translate that book smarts into skills of diagnostic touch, suturing skin, prescribing treatment. 

One method of transforming head knowledge to a practical skill set is through bedside rounds: a gaggle of medical students and resident and fellow physicians (still in training) following after an experienced attending physician. Each morning this group travels from bedside to bedside, discussing the patient’s disease, the patient’s prognosis, the patient’s progress, the patient’s treatment plan. In recent years, medical schools have worked on making this process more inclusive of the patient who, after all, is the subject of the discussion. 

Wright’s poem touches on the experience of that patient, ill and incapacitated, being talked over in a cryptic language, determinations being made about the status and plan while the patient may still be steeped in a cloud of confusion. 

Wright finds himself in a comparable situation when his landscape architect brings her intern along with her one day. As this professional passes on her skills to her protégée, discussing his yard in detail, Wright begins to feel something he hadn’t expected: “I begin to resent them—the little games they play.”

Writing Prompt: Think of a time you’ve experienced bedside rounds as a physician, as a patient or while visiting someone in the hospital. If you were the patient, how did you feel when the medical team discussed your case in front of you? Did they include you in the discussion or explain what they talked about? If you’re a medical provider, choose a memorable bedside rounding experience: running rounds for the first time, being a brand new medical student, noticing something significant with the patient’s demeanor while their case was being discussed. Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: The Colostomy Diaries

With humor and candor, Janet Buttenwieser writes in “The Colostomy Diaries” about awaiting her gastrointestinal surgery and the aftermath that leaves her with a colostomy. 

I like Buttenwieser’s use of visual details, putting the reader in the room with her, receiving this disappointing news: “‘You’ll have to have your entire rectum and anus removed,’ my surgeon told me over the phone as I sat in my living room, an unread newspaper on the table, cherry blossoms blooming on the tree outside my window.” 

Buttenwieser faces difficulty getting the trash can she needs to dispose of her colostomy bags at work. The humiliating barriers she encounters illustrate the ridiculousness of much “beurocratic red tape.” After her surgery, she struggles with how many details to disclose about her sensitive change in physical status, even to friends. 

Buttenwieser’s candid anecdotes of everyday challenges post-surgery, such as shopping for clothes and dealing with an emergency malfunction of the colostomy bag while out with her small children, show why her new book Guts, set to be released in 2018 by Vine Leaves Press, is likely to be an entertaining and enlightening read. 

Writing Prompt: Think of a time you’ve dealt with “beurocratic red tape” in relation to a medical condition or the medical field. List all of the obstacles you encountered. Can you infuse some humor into the piece, despite the frustrating experience? Write for 10 minutes.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: New York Lungs

In her poem, “New York Lungs,” medical student Slavena Salve Nissan writes of the intimacy of knowing a patient “underneath her skin fascia fat.”  Nissan notes how her beloved city left a mark on her patient’s lungs. She thinks about the people who loved her patient and how even they didn’t know that the patient looks “like a frida kahlo painting on the inside.”

Place is a central theme in this poem. I like the subtle imagery of the medical student and her patient breathing the same air, from the same city, in and out of their lungs. This commonality, too, connects them.  

As a medical provider, we experience intimacies with patients that are both strange and surreal. It is a great privilege that our patients allow us, for the purpose of diagnosis or treatment, to perform these intrusions: cutting into the skin, sampling cells from the cervix, looking into the ears, listening to personal stories, palpating the lymph nodes. Over time this can become routine to the medical practitioner, but I do still wonder, and hope I never lose keen curiosity, about the lives of my patients beyond the exam room. 

Writing Prompt: Reflect on the vulnerability between a patient and physician. Is it surprising that we can be so open and trusting with a near stranger? Think about such a time, perhaps a surgical procedure or mental illness or embarassing symptom, when you put your complete trust in your medical provider. What was that like? Write for 10 minutes. 

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Found in translation?

Prolific writer, physician and narrative medicine pioneer Danielle Ofri writes about the assumptions we make and the significance of a shared common language in “Found in translation?,” an excerpt from her book Medicine in Translation.

Using interpreters for a medical interview is a skill learned in medical school and honed in residency. Medical providers are advised not to use family members as interpreters, as this could cause the patient to censor themselves or omit important details.   Sometimes though, given my monolinguilism, there isn’t much of a choice. I’ve needed many interpreters over the years, both on the phone and in person. There have been times, even with trained interpreters, that I’ve had the sinking suspicion that something significant was lost in translation. It may be because I ask a question, the patient and translator chat back and forth for a few minutes and in the end the interpreter relays a one sentence reply. Or simply because I realize, as Ofri points out in this piece, that the nuances and casual aspect of communication is lost when a third person enters the equation. Ofri notes her conversation with the patient through an interpreter was “polite and business-like. I asked the questions, he supplied the answers.”

Ofri makes certain assumptions about what language skills her Congolese patient might have or lack. The patient, in turn, also is surprised to learn that Ofri, a white American, speaks a language other than English. She notes how the dynamic of the visit changes after they discover they both speak Spanish. Suddenly, without an interpreter between them, they’re able to communicate on a more casual level. They each learn specific details about each other’s personal history; they “chatted happily.” 

Writing Prompt: Think of a time you’ve had to interact, either in medicine or travel, with another person who didn’t speak the same language. Did you feel like you were really communicating, getting to know the other person? What were your assumptions? If you’ve worked with a medical interpreter before, either in person or through the phone, how did this affect the interaction with the patient or physician? Were you worried something important was lost in translation? Write for 10 minutes. 

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