I believe that stories are good medicine.
The other night, I read my children an old favorite, Harold and the Purple Crayon. The story begins with a bald headed boy, a blank page, and his crayon – possibility. And then Harold does what we all do, he creates his world through story. First he draws a line – the horizon, then the moon in the sky, and then a long straight path to follow his life’s adventure.
When Harold draws a forest – albeit of just one tree – he thinks to draw a fierce dragon to protect the tree’s juicy apples. But then, Harold’s story surprises even its author. He is so frightened by his dragon that he backs away, his trembling hand making a wavy purple line as he does, and before he knows it, his life’s plot has reached a crisis point. He is over his head in the ocean. But Harold’s story surprises him again, providing him with exactly what he needs – rescue in the form of a “trim little boat” to begin his journey home.
Harold’s story reminds me of Hannah, who was one of the oldest adolescents with HIV I took care of during my pediatrics residency, although the disease had stunted her growth, giving her an appearance of perpetual childishness. Hannah’s foster mother had rescued her at age two from the city hospital where she had been abandoned since birth. She had been a “boarder baby” as the many HIV+ infants living in hospitals were known back then. But Hannah seemed to carry none of that emotional baggage – sweet voiced and talkative, she painted herself a world of limitless possibilities, regaling anyone who would listen about her life, including future dreams of college, a career, babies. “She’s delusional,” we residents would mutter, scornful of anyone who did not ‘face up’ to the hopelessness of medical diagnoses.
Then one day, I took my stethoscope out of my ears and begin to really listen. Not examine, or diagnose, or teach Hannah, but just BE with her, learn from her. Hannah faced ferocious dragons on a daily basis: illness, sorrow, discrimination. She knew she was going to die, and probably soon, but she knew something else too: that the measure of our lives, no matter how long, lies in the stories we are able to share with others. It is not enough, usually, to tell one’s story in the woods – or even a forest of one tree – where no one can hear. Rather, it is in the experience of one’s narrative being witnessed that something holy takes place – recognition, a sense of healing, kinship in the world. By narrating her life to doctors, teachers, friends, Hannah allowed herself to be SEEN, not just as a patient with AIDS, but as an individual with idiosyncratic hopes, dreams and desires.
Hannah’s ability to tell of herself was a boat that rescued her from despair. When I heard she died, I pictured her boarding that boat, with hope for a rudder and dreams for sails.
I believe that stories can be simple and comforting like the bedtime tales of childhood, or complicated, confusing, even frightening. But I believe that witnessing stories in all of their variety is the heart of healing. I believe that in so doing, clinicians and patients can draw medicine a new horizon, and that we can walk together on a path of our mutual creation, under a shining purple moon.
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