...for that is where the healing begins.
I felt very fortunate to attend Dr. Rita Charon’s lecture at the Vancouver Institute last night with two wonderful colleagues from my children’s hospital workplace. Dr. Charon’s talk was entitled The Power of Narrative Medicine and it was a beautiful marriage of literature, art and medicine.
I hung onto every eloquent word she said. It was as if Dr. Charon had heard me preach about active listening, storytelling and reflective practice over all these years, but then she took my simple thoughts and draped a complex intellectual layer over them. Her lecture was very smart and I can’t stop thinking about what she said – I cannot recall being that mesmerized by a presentation before.
The premise of her lecture was this question: how do we be totally present with another human being? While I talk to medical students about simple things, like eye contact and not appearing rushed when they meet with patients, Dr. Charon goes even further by teaching health faculty students how to read and to listen to stories written in the literature so they understand how to pay attention and to recognize that every single word counts. This human skill of careful attention can be applied to work with patients, who often crave one simple thing: to be heard and understood.
Once we understand how unified we are at the human lived experience, then our troubles (in health care) are over.
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 was listening closely to patients with a mixture of curiosity and wonder.
Pay attention to where the suffering happens. This is where the healing begins.
Dr. Charon spoke for just over an hour. I could have listened to her forever.
I thought about my English degree and how I bring the ‘soft’ right-brained stuff into my scientific, technical work environment. I’m often dismissed and misunderstood, but I keep my head down and continue on. I don’t underestimate the influence of initiatives like new art on the walls, a book club, TED Talk showings and inspirational quotes that I tack onto the hospital bathroom walls. I’m interested in nudging my colleagues to think and feel in different ways.
The conversation on the way home with my two work friends (one a clinical librarian also with an English degree, and the other a leader with a graduate degree thesis in storytelling) was the most interesting.
We all wondered if the work of health care was meant to be purely embedded in math and sciences. Isn’t caring for patients in itself an act of humanity, and not a function of science?
(Here’s a snippet of Dr. Rita Charon’s wisdom. Take the time to watch it carefully. She does not have a sound byte-like style of speaking – and that’s what was so refreshing about her talk last night. You have to work to listen and understand her words – they will not be spoon fed to you. It made me realize what a rare gift Dr. Rita Charon is in our rushed and frantic world).