A medical student as storyteller and story-listener

By | November 8, 2018

“Sondor” is a made-up internet neologism that captures the fleeting but poignant sense of “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness.”

I think about this word often when I see my patients. Everyone is the main character of his or her life, and during the third year of medical school, I had the privilege of listening to countless patient tales at the many places I saw them, including hospitals and free clinics.

As I listened, I was aware that I would be just an incidental character in my patients’ sagas — that one medical student during a clinic visit or hospital stay. Despite my bit part, I still had the privilege of watching some of these characters struggle through one of the worst chapters of their lives, and I was professionally privy to some of their deepest secrets — including their sexual practices, substance use, and psychological history — to get a detailed overview of their health.

So far, I have crossed paths with people from a wide swath of humanity: a young Tibetan college student with a strange cluster of symptoms later found to be lupus, an Ethiopian septuagenarian coming in for her first female pelvic exam, a patient with a drug addiction repeatedly hospitalized for severe skin infections. Despite the diversity of their origins, their goals were uniform: They wanted someone who cared, someone who would listen to their worries and concerns and address them.

Listening to patients’ stories isn’t just a social nicety, it’s a necessary part of coming up with a diagnosis and a proper treatment plan. The physician’s role, then, is to understand those stories and help guide the patients to better endings for their conditions. Of course, physicians are not editors; they are supporting characters who can make suggestions on how the plot ought to go. In the end, the patients themselves are the authors. However, there is no guarantee of a happy conclusion, and often, I’ve seen patients’ stories end much too soon.

Storytelling is also a vital skill among physicians. For instance, on-the-job information sharing involves summaries spoken during rounds with other members of the treatment team or written up in a patient chart in the electronic health record. All the specialties have their unique flavor and template to explain what is happening to a patient, but the ones that I appreciate the most are the ones that depict the patient as a person, someone that I can care about, rather than reducing them into their lab values or disease.

Furthermore, physicians tell stories back to their patients, to connect with them and to explain the complex conditions they may have. To paint a picture appropriate for the patient’s level of understanding is critical in enabling the patients to make informed decisions about their health. Besides, many physicians have taken it up to themselves to write and speak to inform the public to foster an educated citizenry, particularly in the face of misinformation and pseudoscience.

Thus, my plans are inspired by stories — those of patients and doctors. As a story-listener, I will learn how to understand my patients and suggest the appropriate treatment for each. As a storyteller, I want to educate my patients in a way that will make sense for them. Ultimately, I want to revise the narratives of people’s lives by helping them take back control of their stories. By intertwining my story with those of others, I want to enrich the chapters that have yet to be written.

Yoo Jung Kim is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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