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Editor’s note: In this excerpt from her latest book, Ducks in a Row, Canadian-based author, Sue Robins explains the power of storytelling for everybody invested in health care—patients and clinicians alike.  A well-told story, Robins explains, has the ability to foster compassion in listeners and bring us closer together as human beings. An active patient advocate, Robins is a former breast cancer patient and caregiver of a young man with Down syndrome. 

This excerpt uses Canadian English spellings.

Once I co-presented to a group of pediatric residents on the family perspective of having a kid in the hospital. I had a number of friendly suggestions about working with families, but after I read the evaluations, I realized I had missed the mark.

“We work really hard. What about us?” said one of the comments.

I had not given space to acknowledge the residents’ stories.

I did not make that mistake again. I thought about that question for a long time. If I believe in relationship-centred care as I say I do, that means that both parties in the relationship must feel seen and heard.

The audience heard me say: Me, me, me, this is what I need. My error was that I did not provide an opportunity for them to tell their own stories.

“Let us begin with the premise that everybody in health care has a story. Reflective practices like Schwartz Rounds are all about staff storytelling. On Twitter, Dr. Colleen Farrell created #medhumchat, which is, “reflection, empathy, and connection in healthcare through discussions of poetry and prose.”

Dr. Rita Charon’s Narrative Medicine movement also uses the power of art for clinicians to share their stories. I once heard her speak and wrote about her talk.

“Once we understand how unified we are at the human lived experience, then our troubles (in health care) are over,” said Dr. Charon.

She spoke about boundaries, and how the artificial borders we place between each other as ‘professionals’ and ‘patients’ are actually permeable. She wondered what methods she could use so she did not have to be a stranger to her patients and concluded that this can only happen when she listens closely to patients with a mixture of curiosity and wonder.

I will repeat the wisdom from Dr. Charon, because this is important: “Pay attention to where the suffering happens. This is where the healing begins.”

Co-authoring is a way to tell stories together. In 2017, I wrote an article with radiation therapist Amanda Bolderston about our different perspectives on feedback I had for the cancer hospital.

Amanda explains the concept of narrative inquiry, “…using narratives in health care is not new, there are numerous examples of patient stories, health care professional stories, and health care professional as-patient stories in many formats.” What is new are health professionals and patients writing stories together.

Everybody has a story. And everybody has to look after their own hearts so they can look after the hearts of others. This is where compassion is born.

A Well-Told Story 

Here are a few of my tips about storytelling in the professional realm:

  1. Keep it real. There is a fine balance between cheerleading and complaining. I share a positive story, then if I have a negative story, I always suggest what could have made it better. Constructive and authentic stories help lift morale and give a sense of hope.
  2. In groups, listen more than you talk. Check your own judgment and be as open-hearted as you can when listening to another’s story.
  3. Be careful of getting stuck in your own story. Sometimes your own story can overshadow or diminish the importance of the stories of the people you serve.
  4. A grief counsellor once told me: It is okay for people to have their story, and for you to have your story, and for those two stories to be different.
  5. Be wary of comparing or minimizing stories. We don’t have to compete with our suffering.
  6. Don’t steal other people’s stories for your own gain – especially people who have less power than you. There are many health professional authors who are guilty of this.
  7. Please don’t ignore other patient stories if you yourself become a patient. Share the stage and your microphone with others. Nobody’s story is more important than someone else’s, no matter their title or position.
  8. The only person you can represent with your story is your own fine self. Be mindful about speaking on behalf of others. As a mother, I’ve been guilty of speaking on behalf of my children–especially my son who has an intellectual disability. I’ve been working hard to support him to share his own story instead.

It is always an honour for me to bear witness to someone’s story, no matter who it is. I wish for more safe places where all kinds of people are guided to share their experiences.

In the telling comes the healing. And we all need healing in our own ways.

From Ducks in a Row, by Sue Robins, published by Bird Communications, copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

The Society for Participatory Medicine and NRC Health is presenting the first in a nationwide series of Creative Learning Exchanges (CLE) on Community Health Access and Equity, October 20, 2022, 12 p.m. – 4 p.m. at Brown Advisory, 100 High Street, 9th floor, Boston, MA 02110.  Attend in person or online.  The event is free to SPM members, but registration is required. Register today!


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