Reclaiming Empathy: Why Doctors Need to Tell Their Stories by Stefanie Reiff, MD

   Stefanie Reiff, MD is an Internal Medicine resident at Columbia University-NYP. Read her poem, “ Emergency Department ” in the Spring 2015 Intima.

Stefanie Reiff, MD is an Internal Medicine resident at Columbia University-NYP. Read her poem, “Emergency Department” in the Spring 2015 Intima.

When I read, I find there are moments where it seems the author has plucked an emotion or idea out of my own experience and brought it to life on the page. This happened as I read Katherine Guess's piece, “I Need to Tell This Story” (Fall 2014 Intima), which chronicles the author's discovery of the emotional and psychological importance of sharing one’s own story. Guess adeptly writes, "I realized that [my patient] needed to tell [her] narrative in order to sort through the events of the last few days." This discovery perfectly describes my own experience in writing my poem, "Emergency Department," I found myself continually revisiting my patient, her loss, and my own personal struggle with the emotional burden of informing a patient she had miscarried. I discussed the incident with a few colleagues but was embarrassed by my own intense sadness for a stranger's experience. It wasn't until I finally sat down to write that I truly identified, acknowledged, and processed my own grief, both for the woman and myself. This was a story that I genuinely needed to tell, not just to relate the patient’s experience, but also to share the large emotional impact I personally felt.

As I continue with my medical training, I see my colleagues and myself becoming increasingly numb to the emotional aspects of our daily task of doctoring, which is a trend noted both anecdotally and in studies. I recall one instance after a particularly gruesome cardiac arrest with a prolonged resuscitation attempt when a fellow resident stated that she no longer felt the need to debrief after such events—this brutal occurrence was now commonplace. As a medical student I researched emotional reactions after trainees’ first cardiac arrest experiences and presented my data on several occasions. Remarkably, at each presentation senior physicians raised their hands to inform me that being so ginger with medical students' emotions was unnecessary and that, essentially, blossoming physicians should "suck it up." Thankfully, in recent years there appears to be a shift towards reclaiming the humanities in medicine and reemphasizing the importance of maintaining the well-being of the physicians themselves. I think it is too often forgotten that we NEED to tell our stories to stay sane, healthy, connected, and emotionally competent. Without these qualities an entire profession is at risk of losing its empathy, arguably one of the strongest medicines with which it is equipped.


Stefanie Reiff, MD is an Internal Medicine resident at Columbia University-NYP. Read her poem, “Emergency Department” in the Spring 2015 Intima.

© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine