Why Write a Patient’s Life as a Short Story?

As a 57-year-old Jewish woman, the daughter of a physician from the days when medicine was practiced as both an art and a calling, I am appalled by the predicament in which we, patients and health care professionals alike, now find ourselves.

“Time to get to know each patient?” a young resident laughed sardonically. “That would be so nice. But it’s just not possible with the number of people we have to see in a day.” In addition to the time constraints mandated by managed care, developments in pharmacology and technology are so impressive that talking with patients has become passé. Yet the greatest increase in scores that measure patients’ satisfaction in their interactions with their physicians occurs when a physician puts down her pen, indicating she is there to listen.

Determined to do what I can to humanize the healthcare experience for patients, I teach hospital staff and skilled volunteer show to write the short stories of incoming patients.

This program relies on volunteers working alongside staff Writing the stories requires additional skills for the volunteers, which they learn and practice in training sessions. (For the women, it has taken longer to find their voices as writers than it has to feel authentic as listeners.)

The use of stories in hospitals to help people heal seems to me not only inherently Jewish but also so female, and I came to it via my work with Holocaust survivors.

As a Jewish child I knew the power of the story. My only positive memories of religious school were those times when our teacher read Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, or other Jewish writers, though none of them were women. The stories redeemed the entire religious school experience for me, and I looked forward each year to re-reading the story of the Exodus at Passover, when we repeated out loud with family and friends who we were and where we came from.

My childhood interest in listening to stories led me to study psychology. I was trained to elicit and re frame the stories people told in order to help them heal. But it was my participation in the Oral History Project of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies that led me to discover the therapeutic benefit of writing people’s stories for them. Writing had always been my way of dealing with emotions, sorting things out, thinking deeply about a subject. Listening to survivors’ stories, I had no other way of coping than to write. I wrote first-person narrative poems in the survivors’ voices, and shaped their stories.

Wanting to thank the people I interviewed for participating in the oral history project, I gave the survivors copies of their taped interviews. They were less enthusiastic about the tapes than I had anticipated. They didn’t like their voices, felt critical of the way they told the stories—the silences, the crying, the length of the unedited interviews. Since many went on for five or more hours, they believed that no one in their families would listen to the tapes in their entirety.

And so in addition, I gave them copies of what I had written based on the interviews: narratives in their own voices, condensed and crafted as I understood them. I was amazed by the results. The survivors loved them. Many who had not wept as they told their stories cried when they read them. They said I had captured their essence on the page, telling their story as they wished it to be told. As audience, reading their own stories, they were able to hear themselves as I had heard them and feel for themselves what I felt, tremendous sadness and rage about all that they had experienced, respect for their ability and the courage to speak about the horror I had entered their stories in a way that demonstrated I was with them in their pain and in their resilience, and that I cared.

From that experience, some survivors were able to begin their own writing. Others felt freed from the omnipresence of their Holocaust experiences. And though I will never forget the time I spent interviewing and writing about the Holocaust, I too have moved on professionally, taking what I learned from that experience and working for 25 years with other dis empowered people with stories to tell; students at risk, women who have been sexually abused, prisoners, people with cancer, geriatric patients and those suffering from traumatic brain damage, strokes and other life-altering conditions or illnesses.

The Vital Patient Story that developed from my work in the Holocaust Oral History Project reflects Jewish ethics: treat every individual with kindness, compassion and humanity.

Here’s how it works: The one- or two-page stories are placed in the front of the patient’s medical charts so that physicians and nurses who read them can quickly come to know their patients better. The stories create a connection between the professional and the patient, one human being to another. It doesn’t take an hour of the physician’s time to gather and write the story, only a moment to read it. Employing the techniques of good fiction writing, the stories are compelling and moving, told in the patients’ voices. The better the interview and the quality of the writing, the more power the story has, and the more beneficial, revealing what matters most to the person who’s ill. It is a way to fulfill our mission as Jews not only to save individual lives, but to help repair the world. This project honors the individual by listening to her story and writing it, using it to inform and connect others with the experience. One patient with aphasia, a language disorder that resulted from a stroke, summed up the program, saying, “You write our stories. You understand. You make everyone feel like a mensch.”

As I witness the early results of the program, with patients who suffer less depression and anxiety for having their stories known, and staff more committed to the field of healing for being more deeply involved with their patients, I can feel my father smile.  

Julie Heifetzwriter/performer/counselor, is a consultant for healthcare organizations.