The act of writing allows us to not only express intimate emotions, but also preserve the most sacred of stories. Storytelling, after all, is at the very heart of medicine. Listening and appreciating these stories, therefore, is just as important as representing and preserving them. In “‘A Special Book Kept for the Purpose.’ Writing Patient Diaries: A Century of Skill in the Silence, from the Great War to Afghanistan and Beyond,” Elizabeth Mayhew and David McArthur, published in the Fall 2015 Intima, highlight this transformative power of writing, a practice that can be cathartic as well as therapeutic. For doctors, nurses, and patients of any era, diaries both enhance the clinical encounter and open a path for mutual understanding. Indeed, “observing and communicating the intense personal experience of critical illness or death may therefore be seen as a timeless and essential act in medical practice.”
Mayhew and McArthur’s discussion of patient diaries, particularly in the context of warfare, reminds me of my own piece, “‘Don’t Be a Warrior. Be a Doctor’: Healing and Love After Wartime Trauma.” I was inspired by Dr. Jonathan Shay’s work Achilles in Vietnam, in which he advocates for human communication that can bridge the gap between civilian and veteran, untraumatized and traumatized, Self and Other. Shay maintains that trauma must be communalized, received and understood by all, in order for mental and emotional recovery to be achieved. If patient diaries, as Mayhew and McArthur explain, can have therapeutic effects during the time of war, then perhaps these diaries are only one example of such communalization of trauma.
Indeed, writing offers the promising opportunity to both speak and be heard, to deliver and receive. Writing in a clinical context, from the moribund ward diaries of the Great War to methods in narrative medicine, allow for the honoring of stories as well as a better understanding of the human experience. Perhaps that is why Septimus Warren Smith from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway obsesses over his personal writings, bizarre yet beautiful compositions that provide a glimpse of the wartime trauma he has experienced, a whisper of the revelation he has grasped: “universal love: the meaning of the world.” And yet, Septimus’ own writings are rendered useless and futile, ignored by Septimus’ cold and ignorant doctors. Patient diaries and writings deserve respect, but they also call for a reception, an embrace—a communalization, in fact, among all of humanity.
Saljooq Asif is currently a student at Columbia University, where he will receive his Master of Science in Narrative Medicine in May 2017. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology and English from Boston College, where he was also a member of the Arts & Sciences Honors Program. Asif is interested in the intersection between medicine and the humanities as well as media portrayals of race, gender, and class in regard to healthcare. He also has a background in health journalism, having worked at WCBS-TV and Medscape, a subsidiary of WebMD. His academic paper “‘Don’t Be a Warrior. Be a Doctor’: Healing and Love After Wartime Trauma.” appears in the Spring 2016 Intima.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine