The narrative medicine movement is helping us all understand the important role stories play in the everyday world of clinical care. Finally. In “Writing Patient Diaries: A Century of Skill in the Silence, from the Great War to Afghanistan and Beyond,” Emily Mayhew and David McArthur offer several examples of how nurses documenting the details of patients’ clinical experiences in patient diaries provided the means for both patients and their families to understand and come to terms with those devastating experiences of injury, illness, trauma, and death. In this way, writing becomes a therapeutic process, making the illness experience “real,” as narrative medicine advocate Rita Charon puts it.
Mayhew and McArthur focus mainly on the value to patients and families of having nurses “courageously” see their patients’ experiences and document those observations with compassion. In these narrative records, which clearly move beyond the confines of formal healthcare documentation, it seems important to also recognize that, in formulating this narrative for others, the nurse also benefits on a personal level.
We are also finally starting to acknowledge the incredible toll the work of nursing takes on the mental and physical health of individual nurses. As the NPR series “Resilient Nurses” explores, nurses too often develop compassion fatigue in the face of all the trauma and inhumanity with which they are confronted on a daily basis in the modern health care setting. It becomes increasingly important, therefore, that in addition to caring for their patients, nurses must also take care of themselves so they remain resilient, so they are able to care for their patients.
As I suggest in my essay “Writing the Cure,” writing reflectively about the deeply personal thoughts, feelings, memories, and emotions that arise out of their clinical experiences—in a patient diary or, preferably, a personal journal—can be a very effective way for nurses to nurture this resilience. Putting these often difficult and emotional experiences into writing and forming them into stories makes these experiences tangible, makes them “real” for the nurse in the same way it does for the patients and families Mayhew and McArthur describe.
Linda Kobert worked and taught in nursing for 20 years. Now she writes and teaches creative writing in central Virginia. She also serves as prose editor for the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s online literary magazine Hospital Drive. Her poetry and prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Pulse,Lunch Ticket, Postcard Poetry & Prose, The Pen and Bull and elsewhere, and she has had several essays broadcast on a local NPR affiliate. www.LindaKobert.wordpress.com.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine