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Articles    H2'ed 2/23/12

Medical Writing: the Healing Power of Narrative

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so much wanting

I feel it pressing in

squeezing me

bruising me like thumbprints,

collapsing me.

I shut down all my doors and windows

and focus on a spot across the room

where a thin bar of sunlight

filters through barbed wire

to light a concrete court.


I met Mary at a narrative medicine day for a literary arts conference at Goddard College.   She works as a physician for the Department of Corrections in Maine.   Her beautiful poem represents how physicians use poetry to make sense and meaning of difficult experiences.


Then we looked at Kimberly Myers and Michael J. Green's paper from the Annals of Internal Medicine. January 18, 2011 (vol. 154 no. 2 129-130).   They wrote how telling (and listening to) stories has long been held to have a positive effect on health.    Narrative medicine studies suggest that telling others about one's illness can help ease suffering, by imposing a narrative order on frightening events.   This was by way of introducing a paper by Thomas Houston and colleagues from the University of Massachusetts Medical School which was entitled "Culturally Appropriate Storytelling to Improve Blood Pressure:   A Randomized Trial (same journal, pp. 77-84).   They studied 230 African Americans with hypertension in an inner-city safety-net clinic in the southern United States.   They provided people with 3 DVDs that contained patient stories about how people got their blood pressure under control, told by people who were very much like the patients who were watching the DVD's.   The outcomes were changes in blood pressure for patients in the intervention versus the comparison group at baseline, 3 months, and 6 to 9 months.   Most patients (71.4%) were women, and the mean age was 53.7 years.    Among patients with baseline uncontrolled hypertension, watching stories statistically significantly reduced blood pressures.    Patients with already controlled hypertension at baseline did not change over time between study groups.   So writing and storytelling matters!


Then I used the example of Oliver Sachs, best-selling author, physician, and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center. In 2007, he was named the first Columbia University Artist, in recognition of his contributions to the arts. He is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007) and The Mind's Eye   (2010). Awakenings (1973), his book about a group of patients who had survived the great   encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the early twentieth century, inspired the 1990 Academy   Award-nominated feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. The New York Times has referred to him as "the poet laureate of medicine."   Sachs is an example of turning case histories into literature and reveals much about how writing and literature can help us understand human suffering.   Here's a short quote from The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, which is an example of cortical blindness, in which a man "sees" without actually knowing that he sees.   His optical system works and his brain works with it, but he has lost awareness of it because of a stroke.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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