In our western, disease-care system, the power of stories has been pushed to the periphery, even though they are central to the spirit that promotes or undermines our healing. Fortunately, a whole field of narrative medicine is blossoming. Rachel Naomi Remen was one of the first people to introduce me to the field, then Rita Charon and Jack Coulehan.
After I moved to British Columbia, I met Arthur Frank and read his powerful book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. I became aware of a B.C. program to honour stories, the Patient Voices Network and Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program.
So when James Borton contacted me about his new book, The Art of Medicine in Metaphor – A Collection of Poems and Narratives, he piqued my interest.
Borton is a teaching associate in the Department of English at Coastal Carolina University. He is also a blogger (All Heart Matters) and writer on medical humanities. Here’s how he describes the incident that prompted him to collect the poems and stories of people’s experiences with health care:
Three years ago I learned a painful lesson about how a patient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It’s no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.
In 2011 he organized a symposium for physicians and professors, “The Art of Medicine: Metaphors & Narratives.” And in courses and workshops, he gathered the stories of medical personnel and patients. Now he has published an anthology of illness narratives, told through stories and poetry. In his foreword to the book, Dr. Coulehan writes:
The Art of Medicine in Metaphors represents the process of encountering illness by dividing it into three stages—recognition, tension, and transformation—that form sequential sections of the book. While there is often overlap, the stages constitute a useful way of conceptualizing the material. First, the person’s familiar world is swept away. A wave of new images and alien feelings overwhelms them and he or she must attend to (recognize) the changed reality. Second, the person’s language, beliefs, and emotional resources confront this new world of illness, creating tension. Finally, but unfortunately not always, the person emerges with greater self-understanding (transformation). The dynamo that drives this process is language with many resources—mental, emotional, verbal, and written.
Borton sent several searing excerpts from the book, including Debra McQueen’s story of a young man dying of AIDS and his determination to travel to the Philippines to see a faith healer. Sam Watson contributed a poem about the moments between being wheeled into the operating room and succumbing to ether, ending in a breathtaking moment of clarity. Patricia Dale’s story of depression and self cutting was painful to read, yet ended with hope.
The seed of healing lies within our illness narratives. Our bodies eventually succumb to age, illness, accidents and death. No matter how much our medically trained allies patch our bodies, we all carry around an expiry date. We give meaning to our fleeting journey through our stories.
Barry Lopez described it well in Crow and Weasel:
The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.