I love stories, either told, written, or listened to. Songs tell stories, as does art. Blogs such as the rich content open so many doors for rich conversations. Telling stories is part of who I am. My father loved to tell them, as did my grandfather, whose name I took. They were called bull-sh*tters – and perhaps some refer to me that way at times. In medicine, I find storytelling to be critical. Each time we present a case, we are telling a story. Those residents and students who can present a case to me in a way that draws me in while giving me the necessary facts, but goes the next step that allows me to see that person in their life are the ones I know will be amazing doctors.
Information that goes unshared is considered information lost. However, stories need not always be shared. I encourage all of my students to write down their stories now. Memory is nasty and tends to erase such information over time in all of us. In writing a story, we capture it for ourselves and can reflect on that event and grow from it. That is more than enough. We bring concepts to reality by sharing a story by framing a lesson in a life event others can relate to. Reading about a disease pales in comparison to seeing a patient with that disease. The latter is not always possible. Hearing a case enhances learning, and this is why medical schools have drifted away from lectures to small group learning. These formats revolve around shared stories that allow each student to care about the patient and become invested in learning about the illness. In time who we saw and who we heard about become blurred – but the knowledge survives.
My recent book captures many stories, and all were true. Many were lost for a time due to an illness. The work in recovering those stories was the physical therapy that restored parts of my memory. In telling stories, I have always made all efforts to protect the confidentiality of the stories’ characters, even if permission was given. Never assume others want their story told – it is theirs to tell.
My favorite medical writer is Michael LaCombe. He can weave a story that brings you into it in every way. He makes you think and even become quite uncomfortable. I still use his stories when I teach medical ethics. His series of writings have been captured in the book: On Being a Doctor. One such story is entitled “Playing God,” and I encourage all to read it. One day I asked him if the tale was real. He replied, “Does it matter.” In fact, it did not. That story made me think about paternalism, domestic violence, and the doctor’s role. It made me able to frame lying and the effects of doing so. Stories do not need to give every detail, and they work best when the reader inserts their own thoughts. They live on by doing so.
Medicine has brought me many rewards. Life has brought me even more. I am rich because of what I have experienced and I thank all those who have shared their stores with me. I have more to learn and much more to experience. Help me do so by sharing your stores as I have tried to do. Life is good. There will never be a shortage of good stores to tell.
John F. McGeehan is an internal medicine physician.
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