Bearing Witness and the Power of Narrative Medicine by Vaidehi Mujumdar

Vaidehi Mujumdar is an aspiring physician interested in the social determinants of health and narrative medicine. “ The Operation ,” appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.

Vaidehi Mujumdar is an aspiring physician interested in the social determinants of health and narrative medicine. “The Operation,” appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.

I wrote “The Operation” many times. The first draft was probably in Winter 2013, when I was just free writing short ethnographies that would later be crafted and edited into my undergraduate thesis. In the same way, I see “Witness” by Annie Robinson, published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Intima, as an arm of “The Operation.” Superficially, both talk about reproductive and sexual health. But what resonated the most with me is this one line:

“Doulas are responsive witnesses to the entirety of the environment, and as such must cultivate vigilant awareness of unspoken needs and currents of emotion, and discern the most appropriate and effective ways of responding to them.”

Wow. As ethnographers, we are often told our presence changes the narrative we observe and write about in ways we can’t quite understand despite our best efforts at maintaining self-awareness and positionality. What I found hard about my fieldwork was that unlike Annie, I couldn’t act or respond often in ways I hope to as a medical professional one day. I was the observer. The listener. The one who took it all in. Did I really act as a witness in the way I wanted to? I have grappled with that question ever since I conducted my fieldwork and I don’t have a right answer. Maybe I never will. But what I do know is I saw the power of narrative as a source of healing for women whose stories were witnessed and written about, reflected about, and shared within small pockets of communities that make us realize the power of human connection.

Annie was in the Bronx. I was half-way around the world in Mumbai. She’s a full-spectrum doula. I was a student ethnographer who was thrown into a world of childbirth and loss I was not equipped for. While I could not help in the same way, I could offer pen and paper, virtually or by hand, to witness powerful encounters with the respect they deserved. As Annie said, “…I know this encounter left significant marks on me; how, precisely, I’m not quite sure.” I wonder if Annie is sure now? I don’t know if I will ever be sure, but being immersed for  four months in these stories did impress upon me how stories can affect all kinds of change. Change in self. Change in perspectives. Change in a way that isn’t elucidated quite yet. Change in actual health outcomes. How can we quantify and qualify it all? Do we even have to? Or is it enough to bear witness?

I have so many questions about medicine and narratives. I often stand in awe of the human body – the intricacies and complexities of systems that are still magical, despite the inherent science behind them. In the same vein, I now stand in awe of human narratives and the terrifying power of bearing witness to a story. And through that understanding, I know I am better equipped to take comfort in the discomfort and the unknown.

Vaidehi Mujumdar is an aspiring physician interested in the social determinants of health and narrative medicine. She graduated from Dartmouth College with a double major in biology and anthropology modified with ethics. She is Indian-born American, an amateur ethnographer, and strongly believes health and social justice are intrinsically part of the same story. Vaidehi is a certified rape crisis advocate and currently a fellow at HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, an NYC non-profit that integrates spirituality into healthcare. Her writing has been published on Feministe, Brown Girl Magazine, and The Almost Doctor's Channel. Her Field Notes, entitled, “The Operation,” appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima. This Crossroads post was originally published in January 2015.

© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine