Rita Charon: Teaching Doctors to Listen

Dr. Rita Charon, founder of Narrative Medicine, is concerned with how medical students are being taught to write about their patients. “Patients have ideas about how their stories get boiled down into abbreviations and numbers and acronyms. A 78-year-old grandmother becomes a ‘diabetic with an A1C of 11.2.’”

As an internist who also mentors medical students at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Rita coined the term “narrative medicine” and launched the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University in 2000. Her goal is to help healthcare professionals improve communication and collaboration with their patients, and to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences. At the heart of her mission lies the belief that effective healthcare “requires the ability to recognize, absorb, interpret, be moved by, and act on the stories of illness.” Her definitive book Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness has changed the course of uncountable lives, and steers the narrative medicine movement.

I first encountered Rita at my orientation to the Narrative Medicine master’s program in 2011. She emanated a quiet tenderness as she stepped gently up to the microphone - but soon into her speech she burst forth with impassioned exclamations, rallying the troop of incoming students to her cause to bring together the worlds of healthcare and literary scholarship. As deeply attentive as she is demonstrably passionate, Rita never fails to make an impression. Stories organically unfold when she speaks, on any subject.

When we conversed recently, she told me a story that illustrated exactly what narrative medicine is trying to do. This past spring, four second-year medical students were placed under Rita’s tutelage. She met with them twice a week for over two hours at a time, observed them interviewing patients and doing physical exams, and carefully read what they wrote about their patients. At the beginning of the semester, they shared with her the first formal written notes for the medical charts of a patient of theirs. One student submitted a summary of a young male patient with HIV, Hepatitis C, and a life-threatening combination of diseases on the AIDS ward - but how he wrote it dismayed Rita:

“The first five lines of what he wrote was written almost entirely in abbreviation, with a lot of numbers and percentages. There were barely any words. And this was the opening introduction for anyone who was going to take part in the care of this gentleman, this was the introduction to this gentleman’s situation! I got really upset, because the student was being taught - and expected - to write in this telegraphic, reduced, non-linguistic way.”

Rita chuckled as she shared with me the “slightly snarky” comment she offered him in response: “It’s a good idea to get in the habit of introducing a description of a patient with some English.” To her surprise and delight, he really took her suggestion to heart.

Several days after offering that comment to the student, she observed him performing a physical exam and interview with a new patient. The patient was a young man with a serious infection and a new cancer, who had previously had initial success with an earlier cancer treatment. But now, he and all the doctors knew that there was nothing more than palliative care to offer him at this point: the cancer could not be reversed or treated.

Rita recounted: “So I’m just sitting, watching. The student invited the patient to tell why he had come to the hospital, what the situation was, and then the patient, very honestly, graphically, without holding back, told the student and me what he was going through in his dying.”

“He told us about the life he had lived, which had caused his illness. He told us about his heroin use. He told us about his alcoholism. He told us about his promiscuity. He told us about his violent past. He told us about his regrets, for some of the ways he had lived part of his life. He was very, very frank. He said, ‘At this point, as I face my dying, I want to do as much as I can to give back.’

“And this student was so humble, and respectful. The only thing he did as a listener was to remain in the conversation as an active participant. He didn’t just sit by passively and let the patient tell whatever he wanted. He was engaged as a listener - he knew how to signal that he was actively listening. Every now and then he would kind of ask a question, to signal that he was actively listening. It was extraordinary. And this was the student who had written those technospeak sentences two days before!”

When Rita and the student spoke afterwards, it became apparent that the significance of the encounter really resonated with him. “He realized exactly what that patient had given up. He was as moved as was I to hear this open, honest, generous ‘Here’s what it’s like to be dying...’ Isn’t that something?” Rita and her student were both left in awe of the “remarkable, generous donation” the patient offered by entrusting them with his story.

As the student sat at the bedside of the 45-year-old dying with a belly full of cancer, receiving the man’s stories, he gave the patient the opportunity to give something back. At the end of the visit, the dying man said: “I appreciate the opportunity to impart some of what I’ve learned.” Rita witnessed how being given the chance to tell his stories “added some dignity to his life. He was able to give this young, inexperienced medical student some idea of what it’s like to be dying.”

Sometimes the seemingly subtle acts of witnessing and sharing story are the most powerful treatments, for both the patient and the physician.

More about Rita Charon:

Rita Charon, MD, PhD, is Professor of Clinical Medicine and Executive Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She directs the Humanities and Medicine curriculum for P&S and teaches literature, narrative ethics, and medical interviewing. She also has a primary care practice at Presbyterian Hospital.

TEDxAtlanta Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24kHX2HtU3o

More about Annie Robinson:

I have experienced the powerful effect stories have in healing as both a patient and as a caregiver in the role of a full-spectrum doula, which involves supporting women through abortion, miscarriage, and fetal loss. As a graduate of the Narrative Medicine master's program at Columbia University, my driving mission in life is to elicit, honor, and attend to stories.

I am the Assistant Director of the Center for Narrative Practice, which provides people with deep critical training in how stories work and trains them to apply this knowledge to everyday life by using narrative practice, creative arts, and the study of story. I also curate an oral narrative project called “Inside Stories: Medical Student Experiences”, for which I interview medical students about their experiences in medical school with the intention to provide a platform for their own person healing, self-realization and empowerment through the sharing and receiving of personal stories.

I am honored to serve as Program Officer for Health Story Collaborative. As such, I conduct interviews, edit audio stories, and write a blog posts that profile remarkable individuals committed to honoring and making use of stories in health care. If you or someone you know might be interested in being interviewed, please contact me at healthstorycollaborative@gmail.com