In her Field Notes essay, “I Need to Tell This Story,” Katherine Guess writes of her experience as a medical student shadowing a trauma surgeon. She participates in a family consultation about the status of end options for a young man on life support following a motorcycle accident. The man’s wife “calmly tells her story” to the trauma team and Guess views this as evidence of the wife’s resilience and of the power of story. Guess also links to her own trauma experience of recovering from a motor vehicle accident and “giving back” as a Trauma Peer Visitor. She concludes her essay by stating that she hopes to be able to show her future patients and their family members that she cares about their medical narratives, and she wants to continue using her own medical narrative to bring hope to patients and families dealing with traumatic injuries. Although I do not know her personally, I imagine that Katherine Guess is now an amazing physician.
Guess’s personal story of serious injury and recovery is an example of what medical sociologist Arthur Frank terms a restitution illness narrative. As I discuss in my Field Notes essay, “Witness: On Telling,” this is the most common type of illness narrative. I make the argument that fractured, broken, or what Frank terms chaos stories, are the closest to conveying the true experience of deep illnesses or traumas. Chaos stories can be “told” through metaphor, gesture, and image. We need to find ways to expand our capacity to listen to these types of patient (or family member or community) stories.
Stories matter. Telling and listening deeply and respectfully to different types of stories matters. I was reminded of this recently while spending time listening to stories that my mother-in-law needed to tell. She is 92, was born in Berlin, is Jewish, lost family members to the Holocaust, and remembers living through Kristallnacht and then escaping with her younger brother on one of the last Kindertransport trains. Hers are uncomfortable, disturbing, fractured stories for which a restitution narrative is not possible. Despite that she is one of the most positive people I know, typically saying goodbye with the statement “upward and onward!”
Josephine Ensign is professor of nursing at the University of Washington in Seattle where she teaches health policy, community health, and health humanities. She received her BA from Oberlin College, her masters in nursing from the Medical College of Virginia, and her doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins University. Ensign has worked as a family nurse practitioner and health services researcher for the past three decades, focusing on primary health care for homeless adolescents and adults in the U.S., as well as in Thailand, Venezuela, and New Zealand. She is the author of numerous academic and narrative medicine journal articles, as well as the narrative policy book Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net.
©2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine