narrative medicine

Going to class events these days is like my high school reunion.  People that don’t know each other vaguely misremember details about each other’s lives, everyone pretends to be very interested in what others are doing/planning to do with their lives, and you are guaranteed to get trapped in a conversation with someone you don’t really care for.

All of the above happened to me this evening.

I’m on a slightly different track from the rest of my classmates.  Whereas they are applying to residencies and preparing to be functioning members of society, or doing research (be it for a PhD or a one-year fellowship), I am taking a Master’s in Narrative Medicine.  It’s a shiny new program here in New York: the application of humanities (literature, sociology, film, philosophy, creative writing) to medicine and the conception of illness.

Everyone in my medical school is required to take a short course in narrative medicine during second year.  Honestly, those classes were incredibly basic.  Imagine a six-session anatomy class, or a six-lecture cardiac pathophys curriculum, and you’ve got some idea of the condensation involved.  Most people disliked them or treated them like fluff.  I’m not most people.

As a matter of fact, narrative medicine is the reason I chose this medical school over others. The master’s program was still in the works then, though the foundations were laid.  And it’s a rigorous program — it is, after all, a graduate degree — hundreds of pages of reading (dense reading, too — philosophy and sociology) and four or five short papers a week.  Frankly, I am struggling, which is not something I can say to my medical school classmates, who remember narrative medicine as “that class where I watched movies.”  The fact that I’m struggling worries me, as in — was this the right decision? am I no longer a writer? (That’s the hardest for me, because “being a writer” has been a part of my identity since I was six years old, and I’m not sure if I can confront the possibility that that part of me doesn’t exist anymore.)

But it’s awkward, when I talk to others about what I’m doing, and I can see the “but why?” in their eyes.  Most everyone is polite about it (“Oh, that’s, um, nice” is the standard refrain) but it’s a little disconcerting to care about something so much, to struggle with something, and to see it devalued.

My medicine preceptor, in his eighties and still going strong, told me once that when he was in medical school, public health and ethics were considered totally separate disciplines, and the general feeling was “Why in the world would a physician need to know about that?”  I want to be part of the generation that shows people that narrative matters just as much as public health and ethics and global health and drug development.

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5 thoughts on “

  1. Ahhh! I LOVED our narrative medicine class! I did an independent study last year too – the scholarly sociological reading is tough! But I’m jealous anyway 🙂

  2. I’ve been lurking around for a while, but as a medical student and secretly aspiring writer – I have found it to be really inspiring and encouraging to hear all that you have had to say about medical school. Your one entry regarding why you chose medicine, realizing that the story is crucial to your reasons – resonated deeply with me. Medical school is a personal journey – and so many people plow through it with little thought or moment to reflect -really- what we are encountering everyday. The information we are privy, the knowledge we attempt to horde and master, the people we encounter. To have the ability to perceive these relationships we create in this curious world of medicine, and account it so others can see it, too, is simply an awesome skill.

    Bravo! And I can’t wait to see what works you will divine. 🙂

    (p.s. I didn’t realize there is a masters in narrative medicine – it may be something I would like to look into….)

  3. Cool deal! Nothing remotely like that at my institution. There’s a “literature in medicine” interest group that publishes an annual collaboration, but it always ends up being an awkward collection of amateur art, lame haikus, and sob stories.

    I think writing about medicine is important… probably the reason I have a blog, haha. I think there is much to be learned about one’s self in the process, and much to teach others. In an age where the disconnect between society’s conception of doctor’s lives… and how doctors actually live, having a new generation of articulate, compassionate scribes is vital.

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