Discovering Narrative Medicine

I first discovered the concept of Narrative Medicine when I began to search for journals to which I could submit writing for potential publication. I stumbled upon Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, and was so taken by the depth of self-reflection, honesty, vulnerability, and intentionality in considering the patient/practitioner dynamics, I knew I had stumbled upon something incredibly valuable for my practice as a bedside nurse and the preservation of my heart for my patients whilst navigating the complex personal challenges of working in healthcare. I looked up Narrative Medicine and found the Master’s program at Columbia University. The basis and vision of this field is fascinating.

From Columbia’s website:

“Narrative medicine is an interdisciplinary field that brings powerful narrative skills of radical listening and creativity from the humanities and the arts to address the needs of all who seek and deliver healthcare. Narrative medicine enables patients and caregivers to voice their experience, to be heard, to be recognized, and to be valued, improving the delivery of healthcare.”

When I learned Columbia had also begun to offer an online Certification of Professional Achievement in Narrative Medicine which I could chip away at part-time from home, I applied in a flurry and was thrilled when I received the acceptance letter. Tomorrow is the first day of my first class, Narrative Medicine Methods: Close Reading and Creative Writing. This paragraph from the course description further describes the specific practice of narrative medicine beautifully:

“In this course, students will learn the signature methods of narrative medicine: close reading paired with creative writing. The close reader takes all aspects of form and content of the text into account—plot, time, space, metaphor, narrative strategies, mood, and more. Close readers become close listeners, able to recognize the direct and indirect meanings of what another person tells them. Hence the goals, broadly speaking, are to strengthen students’ capacity to listen with skill to patients as they tell of their experiences, to develop clinically-active empathy, and build the skills necessary to form sturdy partnerships with patients throughout the patients’ care. Through the dynamics of joining in close reading and creative writing, the students will develop interpersonal professional relationships with one another that allow growing understanding of one another’s perspectives. At the same time, these methods lead powerfully to gradual self-understanding as health care professionals, teachers, readers, writers and communicators. Such learning provides a model for health care team relationships, relationships with patients and their families, and wider relationships within communities of health and health care.”

I don’t necessarily see Narrative Medicine as the cure-all for everything that ails the delivery of healthcare and all that ails those of us who feel we are constantly trying to hold burnout at bay. That said, I find it incredibly heartening to see the existence and growth of this field, and to see the passion of the instructors and those in my cohort to preserve and nurture the human connection in healthcare towards the ends of higher quality care and social justice for those with muted voices. I feel as though I have found my home, and can’t wait to share all the learning that I gain from this program.

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