Writer and Narrative Medicine practitioner Charles Paccione wrote an essay "Narrative Mindfulness" in the Spring 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine about being a psychotherapist for cancer patients. He reminds us that truly listening to a patient's story is important for healing: "[There’s a]…recognition that patients may not tell stories in order to receive the 'right answer,' but instead…to experience what it feels like to be witnessed and cradled in another's attention."
My essay "This Story," published in the most recent Intima, is also about bearing witness to a patient's story. Practitioners often view this dialogue as obvious psychobabble: Of course, we must listen to patients. Sadly, most practitioners think they are listening but are not truly doing this work. Like me, they find themselves overwhelmed with demands from their employers, insurance companies, government agencies and regulatory boards. They see four to five patients an hour, and overestimate their ability to give compassionate care in tiny increments. It is mentally exhausting.
I started an experiment a few years ago. On Monday nights, my son's dad picks him up. So on Mondays, I can finish late if needed. My experiment was this: On Mondays, I stopped looking at my watch, stopped reminding my medical assistant to hurry up, stopped worrying when my list lit up with unseen patients. I focused on listening to patients and writing notes when able.
Mondays became my favorite day of work. I remembered how much I enjoy listening to patients' stories and why I chose medicine as my vocation. I also sensed my patients were happier, which fueled my happiness.
It wasn't surprising that I enjoyed Mondays. However, what was surprising is that I still finished about the same time as other days. The frenzied rush I put myself through every other day, it turns out, was not making me more efficient. It reminds me of days I run late and on my drive, tailgate slow cars, pass slower cars left and right, speed above my usual driving speed, all the while feeling a tightness in my chest. After all my efforts, I get off my exit and at the light find one of the cars I passed miles ago for going "too slow" sitting next to me.
Now, Mondays have become every day for me. I often have to remind myself. Slowly but surely, I am retraining myself to "be there" for my patients in a way I haven't been since medical school.
Melissa Rosato lives in her hometown of Philadelphia with her son Benjamin. By day, she is a mild-mannered family physician providing primary care to adults and children. By night, she is a writer. She writes non-fiction, fiction, and poetry, and once even published a poem a long time ago. She is very grateful that Intima will be home for her first essay publication. Writing, and spending time with writers, are the times when she feels most at home – except, of course, when she is actually at home.
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine