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Patient Narratives Essay

“Narratives” or stories have been used throughout the history of the human race to allow and help people to express themselves in ways that promote personal growth and enhance physical well-being. Even in the simplest of contexts, narratives are a core factor in the advancement of the humanity/society and all of its facets. An illustration of this can be seen in the transfer of a family’s lineage, history, and values from generation to generation. This allows for the recipient of this information to have a greater knowledge of his/her own family and the history surrounding it. Oral narratives and writings, such as journals, stories, or speeches to others are stress-relieving mechanisms that can reduce the external stress.

The narrating of one’s thoughts definitely does not initially affect the external stressors one is facing. Narrating does, however, allow one to share these feelings with others and to organize one’s thoughts around these issues. More significantly, narrative opportunities such as these, work to encourage and advance constructive contexts in which individuals such as a mother and daughter or father and son can openly communicate any differences, worries, or problems one might be having with daily living. A more important and serious issue interlaced with narratives is the “personal issue of telling stories about illness…” (Frank, ch.1 pg.2) Narratives are the beginning to the process of healing.

By definition, the term “healing” is best understood as a natural process by which the body repairs itself. Although rather simplistic sounding, healing’s true definition or meaning is a much more complicated issue. When analyzing healing, it is imperative for an individual to not view the words “healing” and “curing” as the same words. Healing raises much deeper, hidden issues than curing does. I once was talking with a buddy about his recent misfortune of breaking his leg. After tens, if not hundreds of hours put in to rehab, he had his leg cast removed in a much anticipated doctor visit. After the doctor removed his cast, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m healed!” Normally, a statement like this would cause no fuss, or evoke any further debate. But today it is time to turn things straight.

Unfortunately for my buddy, his statement was far from the truth. He was not healed, but cured! Medicine, fortunately for him, was able to cure him. But medicine did nothing to heal him from the multiple breakdowns and personal angst caused by his broken leg. Healing goes much deeper than curing. A cure is almost a “quick fix” in a sense. If someone was to burn their hand, the cure for this would be something along the lines of burn cream or ice. But when someone has something severe happen to them, such as a life threatening illness or disease, healing must take place in order for that person to recover. My point is that deep illness interrupts life in all aspects. To start the healing process, one must find a new equilibrium or sense of who you are in relation to the people around you. This calls upon the ever-healing powers of personal narratives to allow for insight into what is going on in your life.

“Stories have to repair the damage that illness has done to the ill person’s sense of where he/she is in life, and where she may be going.” I’ll people have to learn “to think differently.” (Frank, ch.1 pg.1) This can be learned by an ill person by hearing themselves tell their story to others and in turn, understand the listeners’ reactions and experience their stories for themselves. When an ill person tells a story, it is incongruent to telling a story when they are not ill. “The story was told through a wounded body.” (Frank, ch.1 pg.1) The need of ill people to express and tell their stories to create a new “equilibrium” as stated earlier is essential to their recovery. More imperative is the need for listeners of the story to understand that it is told not only about the body, but through the body.

“One of our most difficult duties as human beings is to listen to the voices of those who suffer.” (Frank, pg. 25) For the average human, listening to stories as told through the body of an ill person is not exactly anyone’s idea of a good time. These stories told are, on most occasions, easily neglected or brushed aside by listeners because of their own feeling or thought of the possibility that they too might one day be afflicted with a disease or illness similar to the sufferer. “Listening is hard, but is also a fundamental moral act; to realize the best potential in postmodern times requires an ethics of listening. In listening for the other, we listen for ourselves.” (Frank, pg. 26)

In lesser words, this statement depicts the need to listen as a moral act. In a sense, it is a person’s duty to listen to the stories of the ill. In doing so, one can more fully comprehend the story being told and in turn, be able to relate in some way to the patient. This allows for a more full understanding of what the patient is going through and opens the eyes of the listener in ways that are beneficial for him/her. This way of thinking often deteriorates when the listener is not just a friend or family, but the appointed physician or doctor.

Narrative ethics is a term that has recently been abundant in the field of medicine. The term “narrative ethics” is often used in union with how a physician listens or goes about listening to a patient’s story. It is easily understandable, that after years of practicing medicine, a physician may grow indifferent to the many stories told by patients. It is rather clear to see that after multiple repetitions of something, such as stories told to an attorney or lawyer by their clients, each new story has less and less or an effect on the listener. If a defending lawyer hears stories about client after client killing someone or stabbing someone, they will soon become indifferent to the stories being told. This is a huge problem afflicting modern medicine and physicians. In order for patients to become healed, it is essential for physicians to have a “narrative sensitization” towards their patient’s narrative. The goal is to create empathy for the patient to allow for a full understanding of the patients illness, and also to create a bond between physician and patient that will allow for further quickening of the healing process. Without this, it would be hard for a physician to adjust or find alternative treatment and medical decisions that would play to the “specificity of each patient’s life.” (Frank, pg. 156)”Thinking with stories is the basis of narrative ethics.” (Frank, pg. 158)

Many times a physician will listen to what the patient has to say, but only to a “professional” extent. By this, I mean that physicians often look at each patient’s narratives and/or illness objectively. They don’t look at any deeper truth or emotion that a particular narrative may express; they only look at the observable truths and obvious implications. In the notes written by Renee Anspach on the Sociology of Medical Discourse, she states that, “Cases are objects of professional scrutiny. In presentations of cases, professionals talk about people’s stories; the story is an object of analysis, and professionals believe themselves to be the only ones qualified to carry out this analysis.” For example, a physician may listen to what his/her patient has to say but not think with the story. In this way, the physician could empathize with the patient’s true feelings and better understand his/her condition. If instead, the physician would have listened to the story and actually thought subjectively about the patient’s words said such as, “Can you give me the courage I need?” then he could have thought about the possibility of medicating his patient for possible depression. (Frank, pg. 158)

Existing in and throughout patient illness and healing, religion has been a topic that has been somewhat overlooked. Religion plays a significant role in many people’s recovery and healing process that doesn’t necessarily go un-noticed, but unaccredited. Religion itself is a means of healing, but is usually not documented because of the simple fact that there is no hard evidence to link the two. Religion is a narrative all of its own. Possibly the most powerful narrative, religious narrative allows an individual to place every hope of healing and progression through illness or disease in a single word that has no boundaries; faith. It has been common, for example, for religions to be the sole source of physical, mental, emotional, and psychological healing for adherents.

Although religion and prayer are unable to deliver the resources of modern medical science, it is able to alter the way people perceive and process their experiences. This, in turn, can change the course of a disease or illness simply because of the influence our attitudes have on our physical well being. Regardless of if you believe in God or maybe just a higher-power of sorts, faith in something that you truly believe, will better your condition and will prove beneficial in almost any situation. Religion is possibly the most powerful, yet least used form of narrative existing. With faith in God, anything is possible.

As has been explained, patient narratives are an integral part of patient healing in the face of illness or disease. Not only is the patient’s stories essential, but a listener that really tries to understand the patient and takes an active role in story-listening will better the given situation by ten-fold. Only when all of these factors combine into a single entity do the patient’s hopes and healing abilities fully render. Narratives are the beginning, middle, and end to the process of healing.


for Patient Narratives Paper1.http://www.cancerlynx.com/storyteller.html2.http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=sgQEb9AObS4C&oi=fnd&pg=PP13&sig=GodeUXE92NJX3OH0I9thPOJBtpA&dq=%22The+Wounded+Storyteller%22#PPP1,M13.http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/perspectives_in_biology_and_medicine/v048/48.1connelly.pdf4.Porterfield, Amanda. Healing in the History of Christianity. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 3-185.

5.Frank, Arthur. The Wounded Storyteller. The University of Chicago Press, 1997. 1-185.

Topic:Analyze the importance of patient narratives in healing experiences. How can personal illness narratives help patients move toward healing? What narrative options has modern biomedicine (or “orthodox” medicine) provided?

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