Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Physicians and storytelling, Part I

In 2003, while in my second year of family medicine residency, I wrote a personal statement for a leadership award that described the intertwining of my writing and doctoring ambitions into the occupation of a "physician-storyteller." I didn't win the award, but from my current vantage point, it still resonates. (This is the first of two posts.)


I once believed that physicians belonged to just two types: the engineers and the storytellers. Let me explain. Physician-engineers scrutinize the human body and its components and recommend how to improve performance and extend shelf life. Physician-storytellers take a different approach. Instead of using hammers and slide rules, they ply patients with tales of struggles won and lost: for example, Johnnie Walker who couldn’t stay away from the neighborhood bar and died when his liver gave out. In place of diagrams, storytellers pester and cajole until pre-contemplation evolves into action, and they achieve the same – if not better – results.

Of course I now understand that the best kind of physician is both capable and humane. Yet I have always identified with the storyteller. In college, I combined a love of writing with a desire to make a difference in lives that I could not reach with a pen. I threw myself into volunteer work with children of all ages: as a Big Brother to Duy and Phuong, whose family had immigrated from Vietnam two years before; as a teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary, where a fellow “ExperiMentor” and I conducted a series of lessons about the science of water; and as an SAT tutor in CHANCE, an after-school program for high school students who aspired to be the first in their families to attend college.

Although these interactions contained their share of inspiring stories, I was also driven to create my own. Along with contributing to an intercollegiate literary magazine, I wrote articles for and eventually served as Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Science Review, a bi-annual popular science journal. In medical school, I helped to found a creative writing club and literary magazine Agora. During residency, I have taken evening classes in poetry and non-fiction at Elizabethtown College while writing medical articles for Central Penn Parent and American Family Physician.

Family practice called to me because I saw how the discipline’s emphasis on preventive health care allows physicians to shape patients’ life narratives. During medical school, I counseled teenage mothers on the importance of tamper-proof cribs and car safety seats. In addition, I spent Wednesday evenings at the Bellevue men’s shelter teaching residents about smoking and alcohol cessation. I’ve continued preaching the gospel of health maintenance in residency as a volunteer physician at the Water Street Rescue Mission Medical Clinic, where I add a dash of prevention to every spoonful of cough syrup. As a preceptor for a pre-medical program at Franklin and Marshall College, I advise future physicians that real-life medical drama isn’t always acute, and that success can be measured over decades as well as seconds. Last fall I became the program’s co-coordinator.

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