It’s a cloudy truth in medicine, that sometimes patients are absolutely insufferable.
.... Or should I rephrase that and say: it’s a cloudy truth in life, that sometimes people are absolutely insufferable.
In Dr. Godfrey’s fiction, “Life, Death, and Betta Fish,” we watch the slow crumbling of the mother/narrator, as told via the allegory of her son’s dying fish. The reader starts out blinded to her sadness, by her almost intolerably antagonistic husband. He ignores, disdains, and rejects her throughout the story, nearly becoming a villain in her house. In my nonfiction essay, “We Should All Be Storytellers,” I describe the slow crumbling of a patient’s body, emaciated by cancer. I myself was almost blinded to this sadness, by a group of her sons raging and threatening the ICU, villainizing my clinical house.
In each of these stories, we are blinded by a human wrath: our urge to kill that which attacks us.
In reading about the husband, Josh, I wanted to slap his facial expression, which “managed to convey impatience, disbelief, and condescension at the same time.” I identified so strongly with his wife’s earnest plan to save the fish/her child’s innocence. Similarly, I flashed anger when my patient’s son threatened to “shut this whole place down” after the ICU team recommended hospice.
It is only by uncovering what is hidden, the secret hurt behind the attack, that we transform human wrath into humanity.
Just as we explore Dr. Godfrey’s Carver-esquire narrative tension, which unfolds the devastating backstory behind Josh’s arguments and accusations, we must remember to explore the backstory of a clinical setting. When I searched in my patient’s ICU case, I found a grieving set of brothers who had looked away from the truth of what their mother wanted, both in word and (unfulfilled) deed.
Therein lies the reasoning for narrative medicine: a reminder of the story, the passion, and the imperfection behind the pulse. A reminder to search for the hidden.
Giannina (Lissa Garces-Ambrossi) Muncey, MD, is an intensivist, writer and mom. She is the founder of the first ICU in Jupiter, Florida, where she lives with her husband and son. Dr. Muncey graduated college Phi Beta Kappa at 18 years old, then received her M.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine after winning the Cushing Neurosurgery Research Award. She trained at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, winning the Accomplished Teaching Award in Surgery. She is a former journalist whose articles have appeared in The Nation. Her Field Notes essay “We Should All Be Storytellers” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
© 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine