Learning to Listen: Discovering Illness Narratives in Medical Education

With my White Coat Ceremony over and the start of medical school looming in the very near future, it seems inevitable to me that this website will be transformed, just as I will.  While I’m not certain exactly how, I have several ideas about where I hope to go.

The stethoscope presented to us at our White Coat Ceremony reminded me of my original purpose in creating this blog. The stethoscope embodies, both literally and figuratively, one of my favorite components of the practice of medicine: the ability to listen. When I first discovered the genre of illness narratives, I felt compelled to listen keenly to the experiences of those with illness and the variety of ways in which they can be expressed.

But just as a stethoscope alone does not provide a diagnosis, I’ve come to realize that there is more to receiving these narratives than to listen. I write because I believe also in the value of sharing, of moving forward and doing something with what I learn through listening.

As I move into this next phase of my life, I want to rededicate this website to its original purpose of receiving and sharing ideas about illness narratives. But I want to do so from an entirely different perspective: as a medical student studying to become a physician rather than an undergraduate with hopes to enter medicine. And by acknowledging how different these two realms are, I can begin to understand from within just how medicine acknowledges the narratives of the ill.

I’m sure that I will be busy scribbling lecture notes, reading and rereading textbooks, and dissecting the human body. But all the while, as I study the science of medicine, I plan to bear in mind the art of medicine. I hope to applaud but also question and even criticize the ways that we talk about illness and about people in the institution of medical education.

I believe in the power of illness narratives. And, ultimately, in “Humanism in Medicine.”

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Learning to Listen: Discovering Illness Narratives in Medical Education

  1. Reblogged this on Smriti "Simmi" D. Isaac and commented:
    A lovely reflection from a young lady embarking on a grand journey. Bravo, dear one, and best wishes always!

  2. Carla Zwahlen
    Your desire for compassion is good. However, approaching illness narrative with, “and ultimately, in “Humanism in Medicine,” it serves exclusively to a segment of patient’s finite social, personal and self-fulfillment needs, and becomes impotent to the dying patient . It rejects the patient’s spiritual relationship (not religious philosophy) to God.
    The day a beautiful athlete’s cancer ravaged body began shutting down, his room filled with family,friends, and his amazing med team who gathered at the door inspired by this athlete’s faith and relationship with God. All witnessed his walk as God took him home. One man said,”I came to comfort him, instead he comforted me.” If the” illness narrative is ” listened to with only, humanism in medicine ears,how will you respond to patients who are beyond medical help, and who face their dying with belief in God’s saving grace?

    • Hi Carla,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree entirely; I use the phrase “Humanism in Medicine” to reflect a recognition of how to practice medicine humanely, but also of how to know when medicine has reached its limits. Part of the power behind illness narratives, in my opinion, arises from their ability to raise awareness about experiences that may transcend medical understandings of disease. With death and dying in particular, the limitations to medicine are brought to light, and I believe that practicing humanism in medicine can certainly extend beyond the scientific practice of medicine.

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