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  • Bruce Campbell MD

Narrative Medicine, Reflection, and Patient Care


Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, Girl, is a list of forty-eight instructions and life lessons that the narrator, a Caribbean mother, is passing along to her daughter.


…when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum in it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; … always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady …; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; …


The list allows the reader glimpses into the spoken and unspoken cultural traditions from a place far away.



Exploring fiction and the arts with students and residents


During a December Zoom-based narrative workshop, I read “Girl” aloud with the entire third-year medical school class. The students had just completed their first six months of clinical rotations, and I knew that the short story would seem to be set a million miles away from their recent lives:


…this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions …


The students broke into small groups to talk about the story, its structure, the narrator, and outside allusions. I asked them to think about how they themselves might fit into the story, and if they felt any obligations having read the text.


Now, it was time to make it relevant. “Having experienced this story,” I said, “we will write for five minutes in its shadow. Here is your prompt: Create instructions on how to be a medical student. What they discovered from their writing was remarkable. They made their own lists. They wrote about experiences. They went back and spoke to their pre-medical school selves. The responses were varied and heartfelt.



Earlier this fall, I taught a Narrative Medicine elective course for fourth-year medical students. We watched videos, looked at visual arts, listened to music, shared poetry, and read fiction by writers including Albert Camus, Rafael Campo, Flannery O’Connor, and Richard Selzer. On the surface, many of the pieces seemed entirely divorced from medicine yet, in every case, we found ways to respond to prompts in the shadow of the works, either in writing or other forms of creativity.



This week, I watched Gabriel Osorio Vargas’ Oscar-winning video short, Bear Story, with our otolaryngology residents. The animated film, which is neither medical nor political, is a wordless story-within-a-story about things that are left unspoken. After a conversation about the history of the piece and our initial reactions, I asked the residents to write in its shadow about a time when things might have had more than one ending. As physicians, we could all relate.



The relevance of Narrative Medicine


In each of experience, the students and the residents gamely read fiction or experienced other forms of creative expression. Although some likely viewed it merely as a pleasant distraction from lives that are constantly focused on science, clinical knowledge, and patient care, my goal was to get them to practice “close reading,” a narrative technique centered around the precepts of paying close attention, creating a representation of each story so it can be told to someone else, and being committed to an affiliation with the artist or storyteller. Narrative Medicine (as developed at Columbia University) teaches that enhancing the skills needed to “close read” a piece of literary fiction, a painting, or any other form of creativity, encourages clinicians to build the exact same skills that we exercise when we deeply engage with the stories our patients entrust to us. The more we practice, the better we get.


When I work with students, I routinely ask them whether they value writing, reflective, and narrative exercises in their medical education. The majority believe that these activities are important, yet many believe that their peers view reflective exercises as a waste of time. In other words, “I think this is really great, but I doubt my classmates do.” Our data, as we found here and here, say they significantly overestimate their peers’ negative views. In reality, most can benefit from and appreciate this type of activity.



As we work toward designing medical education for the future, we should find innovative, measurable ways to include narrative opportunities into the curriculum that build skills and encourage wellness. As one of the M3 participants wrote:


At first, I was unsure how I would feel about spending my morning writing and reflecting with students, but I found this extremely useful … I wish we had more of this placed in our curriculum.


When given the opportunity, the students had no difficulty seeing the parallels between the girl in Jamaica Kincaid’s story and their own experiences running into medicine’s “hidden curriculum.” But, until the opportunity to reflect and write arose, the changes remained hidden.


At MCW, we have several narrative- and humanities-literate colleagues whose gifts remain hidden. There are unexplored community-based humanities partnerships and opportunities. It is time to explore how best to employ the medical humanities to foster character, enhance caring, expand patient care skills, and deeply enrich the lives of our students, trainees, staff, and faculty.