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Healing Through Stories

By Vicki Rackner MD

Stories are powerful. How many times have you heard a child beg, "Tell me a story." Scientists say we are wired to learn through stories. In fact, the first three polysyllabic words your child spoke are most likely Mommy, Daddy and story.

Story-telling is an important activity when seeing your doctor. Your doctor's question -- "How do you feel?" -- is your doctor's way of saying, "Tell me your story." Your doctor can diagnose your medical condition most of the time just by listening to your story.

Sometimes doctors have difficulty interpreting your story. That's because you and your doctor have different perspectives. Imagine how different Little Red Riding Hood would sound if told by the grandmother or the wolf.

For example, you may have episodes of abdominal pain and bloating. You never know if it will be a good day, or if you will stay home from work with cramping. In your experience, you have two pains: the abdominal symptoms and the limitation on your activities.

Your doctor's goal, which you share, is to arrive at a diagnosis and eliminate the source of your pain. If you have gallstones or an ulcer, you can be cured; so both you and your doctor will be gratified to see an end to the unpleasant symptoms. In that case the story you tell and the story your doctor tells are much the same: "I had an ulcer and my doctor cured it with medication."

However, doctors don't always have a "cure". You may undergo an exhaustive series of tests to learn that you do not have a serious medical condition. Your doctor tells you that you have "irritable bowel syndrome", a poorly understood condition that is not curable, but rather managed.

When your doctor cannot cure you, it can feel as if your doctor is telling you that your pain is not real. It's like a parent saying to a child, "You can't be hungry. You just ate an hour ago." You might even think your doctor has lost interest in working with you because you cannot be "fixed."

This is when your story becomes even more important. Even if your doctor can't cure you, your doctor can listen to you and offer recommendations that will enhance the your quality of life. This will assure you that your doctor cares and will be there to minimize your suffering. Knowing that you re not going through this alone offers comfort.

You can use your story as a way of establishing the caring relationship that you want with your doctor. Here's how:

  • Know your story. You may know the doctor's version of your story. "I have the following medical conditions that has been treated by..." While this is an important version, I encourage you to tell your own version of your story. What is your experience of living with this medical condition? What challenges have you faced and what have you learned as a result of going through it? You may have never done this before. You can either record it in a journal or tell it to a friend.

  • Ask for the time you need with your doctor. Telling your story takes time. So ask for it. When you call to make the appointment ask, "How do I schedule a half-hour appointment?" Offer to pay for time your insurance company will not cover.

  • Understand that you and your doctor tell different stories. After a brief time of telling your story to the doctor, your doctor may interrupt and guide the story to a diagnosis. If it's important to tell the story your way, say, "I would like just three more minutes to tell my story my way, then you can ask your doctor questions."

  • Tell your doctor how you're feeling. Your doctor may understand how the gastro-intestinal system works, but you are the expert on what you feel. Your feelings convey information that is as important as any lab test or x-ray. If your doctor doesn't understand how important something is to you, speak up! If you tell your doctor about the nausea with your new medication and your doctor brushes it off and moves on to the next topic, say, "For me, nausea isn't just a little annoyance. It's a big deal. Are there other medications that will work?"

  • Recognize the healing power of having someone listen to your story. Have you ever had the experience of simply listening to someone and hearing the other person say, "Thanks I feel so much better having told you my story. Thanks for listening." Some say healing means accepting the past as it is, not needing to change it.

Pain and illness are part of the human condition. You make choices that determine if pain will lead to suffering. When you re sick, your goal is to restore the quality of your life. You - not your doctor - know what that means for you. After all, you re the one living your story.

Your personal health story, as distinctive as your face, may be the most important story you ever tell. Dr. Vicki's Personal Health Journal is a place to store and organize your medical records and your account of your story.

Copyright © Vicki Rackner MD, 2005
Vicki Rackner, MD, president of Medical Bridges, is a board- certified surgeon who left the operating room to help employees become active participants in their health care. She is a consultant, speaker and author of the "Personal Health Journal", author/editor of "Chicken Soup for the Healthy Heart Soul" and author of the lead story for "Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Soul." Dr. Rackner can be reached at or (425) 451-3777.
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