Storytelling

Sometimes I get questions about why I don’t write more on the blog about patients I’ve encountered during this third year of medical clerkships and clinical experience. Honestly, it’s a question that’s hard to answer, as it took me a while to really put my finger on why exactly I don’t want to do that. Obviously, there’s patient privacy and HIPAA to worry about, but I think there’s more than that.

You see, there are so many amazing, heartbreaking, beautiful, crazy, and hopeful stories that I’ve heard and experienced over the course of the past year. Stories about broken marriages and mental health crises; stories about living alone and not being able to breathe; stories about kids trying out for the school football team for the first time; stories about the scary heartbeat that turned out to be not so scary. The list of stories I have heard is, well, enormous.

As a third-year medical student, most of my daily tasks focus on gathering these stories and curating them into a specific format. I walk into each exam room or hospital room and ask, “What’s going on today?” People tell me their stories in the most amazing ways. Some people get straight to the point and tell me the story of how they hurt their leg, but some other people pause for a moment and then launch into a story that goes back all the way to 1950! Listening to people tell their individual stories, each in their own way, is incredible. I get to hear, in little ways – through certain details and word choices – a small bit of each person’s life story. It is a picture of who they are as a person, how they see the world, and how they got to where they are now. Some people are better storytellers than others, but I think there is immense beauty in each and every person’s story, no matter how they tell it. Sometimes I get to help people along in the storytelling process, by providing guiding questions, or asking about a particular detail of the story that they didn’t initially think was important. Through that, as well as any medical clarification or reassurance that I might give, I get to help people understand their own stories a little better.

After helping each person tell the story of their current ailment, my biggest job as a third-year medical student is to distill that story into a sort of template that is organized and concise. I aim to tell the most efficient version of the story that still captures the salient details, and I inject a bit of medical jargon that helps medical personnel best categorize the type of story that I am telling. I tell my supervising physicians this story in a certain order: chief complaint, history of the present illness, review of systems, medications, allergies, past medical history, past surgical history, family history, social history, physical exam, lab data, etc… In a lot of ways, I medicalize the story, but it’s for the best. The better storyteller that I am, the better my team understands what is going on with that patient, and the better we can create a plan of care. Moreover, the better storyteller I am, the better I understand my patient and what their story means to them. Specifically, I come to understand what their goals are, what their fears are, and how their life is being affected by what’s going on.

So, at the end of the day, my life as a third-year medical student has been a life filled with learning the craft of storytelling. I am learning how to stand up in front of a crowd and tell a compelling, yet concise story. I am learning how to write stories into the medical record, where these stories will be preserved for posterity. I am becoming a storyteller.

But at the end of the day, these are still not my stories to tell, at least not in this blog. If you catch me at home, you’ll probably hear about a small part of a story that tugged at my emotions, or a story that taught me something really amazing, or a story that opened my eyes to the challenges that people face.

But to hear the whole story, you’ll have to ask a patient. Chances are, you know someone who is a patient – that would be a good place to start.

Rachel Donaldson

Rachel Nelson

I’m originally from Brentwood, Tennessee, and I came to South Carolina to attend college at Furman University where I was a music major, outdoor enthusiast and lover of life. I never expected to spend four more years here in Greenville, but I could not be more excited to have the opportunity to stay and be a part of this incredible program at the USC School of Medicine in Greenville! I hope that through this blog you will be able to see, as I did, a glimpse of the inspiring vision and stunning reality of this medical school, and that you will share in our innovative and hands-on journey to becoming tomorrow’s doctors.

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  • George Maynard - 1 year ago

    Rachel, wonderful article! Good to hear your 3rd year is going so well. Take care and much Joy! George