Heather Hansen

“What’s Your Story?” The Answer Might Make You Better

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in heart forever.” – Native American Proverb

A teenage boy, Cody, and a teenage girl, Madison, both get concussions heading soccer balls. Cody’s parents rush him to the pediatrician immediately, concerned because of all they’ve heard about the danger of concussions. Madison’s parents do the same. The parents are given similar instructions.  “Strict brain rest. That means no school, no phone, no TV, no reading, no social media, no computer.”  Madison and Cody are not happy, to say the least. However, their parents are vigilant. They take away the computers, take away the television, take away the phone. They do everything they’ve been instructed. Three weeks later, Cody’s symptoms are gone. He’s back to school, back to his phone, and readying himself to get back to soccer.  But over a month later, Madison still has headaches, depression, and anxiety. What gives?

It turns out that girls may have a tougher time recovering from concussions than boys do.  Researchers believe that concussions  exacerbate pre-existing conditions like headaches, depression, anxiety and stress, which tend to affect girls more than boys.  Dr John Neidecker, a sports medicine doctor, points out that understanding this overlap of symptoms means that physicians must be skilled at eliciting patients’ histories. He does that by asking about their experiences.  He asks about their stories.

For the past few years, storytelling has been a huge focus for those in marketing, business, politics and sales. Since storytelling is universal to every country and every culture, it makes sense to use it everywhere, including medicine. That means if we, as patients, are urged to share our stories with our doctors and with each other, we might get better.  In an inner city clinic, researchers gave a group of patients who had hypertension DVDs to watch. These DVDs had other patients telling their personal stories of how they coped with the same condition. The patients who watched the storytelling DVDs had substantial and significant improvements in blood pressure for patients with baseline uncontrolled hypertension.

A medical history is not simply a series of checks on a computer form.  It’s the story of the patient.  In the best of circumstances, a member of the healthcare team has the opportunity to ask about that story, and another member of the team has the vulnerability to tell it. We talk to our doctors about our most private bodily functions.  I suggest we discuss our stories as well. If all of the members of the healthcare team take the time–if they have  the time–to elicit one another’s stories, they share more than facts. They share more than the truth. When healthcare teams share their stories, they gain the ability to connect with one another in a way that can live in each of their hearts forever.  

Heather Hansen

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