09 Oct Storytelling: Positively Impacting Lives and Healthcare
Post Written By Megan Zimmerman
As I sat waiting on that Wednesday afternoon for the first session of the Mayo Transform conference to begin, I tried to imagine what motivation and insight I would gain over the next few days. I was already in awe of the speakers and had a reverence for their actions to improve health and access to care around the world. I was expecting to hear about how science, technology, programs, and people came together to improve patient outcomes. While I found this to be true, I also recognized how telling our stories can improve our health and impact the way we define health and wellness. The power of storytelling comes from its ability to reflect and articulate our experiences. The acknowledgement of suffering, the conversation, and the actions that come from those connections can positively impact health and wellness. At Transform, I had the privilege of seeing how sharing stories impacted individual lives, our healthcare system, and my life as well.
A car accident and a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes; when the lives of two men were changed quite quickly and dramatically, they found a unique path to interacting with their health and wellness and improving their quality of life despite a diagnosis. John Hockenberry is an incredibly successful journalist, author, commentator, and playwright and the moderator of the 2015 Transform Conference. At the beginning of the conference, John encouraged us to engage in health as a lifelong process. John shared his story; several years ago, John was in a car accident that left him paralyzed and without feeling from his chest down. He articulated how one of the problems with the healthcare system is that we try to avoid it at all costs; we have a negative association with hospitals so we only go there when we are sick and in need of care. He argues that if we engage in and optimize all facets of our health we would be healthier citizens.
John Costik also spoke to the Transform audience and taught us that health is not simply the absence of disease, but can also include the actions we take to have balance in our lives. When John’s son, Evan, was a few years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune disease where the body is not able to pull sugar from the blood and get it into the cells in the body). Patients with Type 1 diabetes have to constantly monitor their carbohydrate intake and test their blood sugar with a finger prick blood test almost every hour. John found that the technology available was not sufficient to care for the needs of their son. So, instead of waiting for the technology that would help his son, he took action and developed a software tool that helped him and his family care for Evan’s diabetes. John described health as a balance and a daily reality that we all engage in.
Both of these stories showed me what people can do when they are motivated by their situations. They found health through engagement, interaction, and trying new things. I also realized that I had a similar personal experience while attending the Transform 2015 conference. As I sat waiting for the next session, I had a conversation with the lady sitting next to me. She told me that she was a nurse working for a non-profit organization that focused on improving the quality of healthcare in Minnesota. After a while, I shared a story of a recent encounter my family had with the healthcare system. Three weeks ago, my 91-year-old great-grandmother became ill: she was vomiting and disoriented. When they arrived at the hospital, they ran numerous tests including an EKG, an EEG, and a CT scan. They kept my great-grandmother in the hospital overnight for observation and sent her home the next day with no cause for the illness. My great-grandmother has dementia; she does not know where she is or who she is with the majority of the time. When she was at the hospital she was scared, confused, and wanted to go home. After I shared my story with the nurse, she told me that her mother recently had the same experience. Being a nurse, she understood what my grandmother did not: no matter what test they performed, her mother’s quality of life would not change and staying in the hospital would only add additional stress. We discussed how listening can improve every patient’s quality of life. When clinicians listen to their patient’s stories they improve the quality of care they provide and ensure their patients lead healthier lives.
When we listen carefully, I believe we are all trying to tell each other our stories. Every time we share our story and listen to someone else’s story we find new meaning in our struggles and new connections from shared experiences. The healthcare system is starting to measure success in terms of happiness and quality of life by listening to the stories we carry with us. When doctors listen to their patients they recognize that improving health involves listening to the patient and caring for the person behind every story.