Friday, February 02, 2007

Narrative Medicine

Yesterday, going through the mound of fliers in my mailbox at work, I discovered that Rita Charon -- who's both an internist and a literary scholar, and who pioneered a clinical approach called Narrative Medicine -- will be speaking at UNR on February 20. Narrative Medicine teaches clinicians to be more careful and empathetic listeners of patient stories, and encourages them to write about their encounters with patients as a way of making sense of clinical practice.

I'd heard vaguely of NM before yesterday; a new staff chaplain at our hospital had mentioned that narrative's all the rage in CPE now, and I'd come across the term on various medblogs. But yesterday's the first time I fully realized that there's an established field of study that unites my interests. I'm always looking for ways to feel more integrated, and this looks like a promising one!

Most of the work I've seen on literature and medicine has been about studying how medicine's represented in literature. NM uses literary theory and techniques with actual patients, in the trenches, to help people heal. I've often commented that preaching is a kind of applied literary criticism, because preachers use literary tools both to make sense of very old stories and to help the congregation make sense of how to use those stories in their own lives. NM applies theory the same way. (If anyone out there still thinks an English degree is useless, you're wrong!)

So I'm very jazzed about this, although I now face the daunting task of bringing myself up to speed in the field. As someone trained in literary criticism who spends four hours a week listening to patient stories, I suspect I already intuitively know a lot of what's out there, but seeing the ideas codified will help, and I'll undoubtedly learn new and helpful techniques. I definitely need to read Charon's Narrative Medicine. The UNR library doesn't have it, but I'm sure I can get it on interlibrary loan.

In the meantime, Google has turned up several gems, including a book by Charles Barber called Songs from the Black Chair. Barber writes both about his own history with mental illness and about his work with mentally ill homeless men. UNR did have that book; I started reading it last night, and I'm loving it. And this morning, to my delight, I discovered a paper by Katherine Murray called Tell Me What Happened: A look at the use of narrative in crisis, about narrative in emergency pastoral care. How perfect is that?

Among other things, this discovery has renewed my commitment to finishing the ED Sonnets; I suspect that's going to be part of my Lenten discipline this year. I've been so busy at work for the past two weeks that I haven't even had time to think about writing poetry, but I do want to get back to it.

But first: grading! And class prep for next week!


  1. I once saw human life described as 6 billion people trying to communicate with each other, and failing. Anything that helps, anything...

  2. The NY Times had a great story on her and narrative medicine. I wish I could remember when they did it-I think it was in the last year or 2. And thanks for the praise.

  3. Anonymous12:04 AM

    I seem to recall reading a book she helped write, about auto immnue disease. It's soemthing that helped me a huge amount. Not just the medical detail, but the coping skills.-Deire

  4. Anonymous7:35 AM

    You may also be interested in these podcasts, Susan. Thomson integrates narrative and enneagram approaches, which I find valuable in chaplaincy ( I'd also refer you to a wonderful article by Arthur W. Frank (Literature and Medicine 23, no. 2 [Fall 2004] 209-225 The Johns Hopkins University Press): "Asking the Right Question About Pain: Narrative and Phronesis."

    My English lit., theater, and education degrees, combined with my theology degree, CPE, and hospital chaplaincy lead me to believe we have much in common! I love your blog, and thank you for its openess, honesty, creativity, and your faithfulness to sharing so regularly. It is a place of comfort and very deep breathing for me!

    Cate O.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everybody! Cate: welcome, and thanks for the kind words. I appreciate those article references, and I'll look them up.


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