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: When Patients Mentor Doctors

When Patients Mentor Doctors: The Story Of One Vital Bond” tells of physician Aroonsiri Sangarlangkarn’s longitudinal relationship with a patient she comes to call a friend. The bond between them affects her views on what can be gained through understanding patients on a more personal level.

Sangarlangkarn first meets Roger as part of a medical school program that matches up aspiring physicians with geriatric patients who provide mentorship on medicine from a patient perspective. She then encounters him again after she has finished her training and he is hospitalized under her care. She reflects on the value of her deep knowledge of his personality and history.

I liked reading about Sangarlangkarn’s own lengthy description, written years prior as a medical student, of the patient’s social history. It included intimate details such as Roger’s parents’ names, his boyhood aspirations and his favorite board game. When I was a medical student I remember taking a very detailed history of a woman who was in the hospital for treatment of her malignant tumors. I spent over an hour with her, just chatting with her about her history. No physical exam, no review of medications. The final typed up document I turned into my advisor was over two pages long. Now, as a busy primary care physician, I, like Sangarlangkarn, can see how the emphasis on efficiency causes time constraint that makes it difficult to have meaningful patient-physician conversation that could contribute to helpful personal knowledge. Sangarlangkarn laments that “our interactions with patients have become so regimented and one-dimensional that we no longer get to know the multifaceted person outside the hospital.”

What do you think about Sangarlangkarn’s suggestion regarding the value of patient home visits? This is often done for patients in hospice care or who are unable to physically get to a clinic. Home visits because of the time they require seem much more costly to the system but Sangarlangkarn argues that the value – the ability to get to know the patient on a different level – provides invaluable information. She writes: “To effectively provide care for someone, it’s important to learn who they are, what they eat, how they breathe.” She, in fact, due to her detailed knowledge of the patient, is the only one who eventually can get him the end of life care and support he needs.

Writing Prompt: Think about a time you visited an ill person at home, whether that be an apartment, house or adult family home. Describe what you saw, what you smelled, what you talked about, how you felt. What do you think can be gained by entering into a person’s living space? Alternatively, consider a patient you’ve known for years, maybe decades. What do you know about that patient because of a longitudinal relationship that might be of benefit to you if you had to deliver bad news or discuss different treatment options or medications? Write for 10 minutes.

 

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