Posts tagged Community
A Voice for the Vulnerable

Elaine Scarry, Harvard English professor and advocate for narrative medicine, said: “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.”

We can never truly know what someone else’s pain feels like, or truly understand another’s experience with illness or injury.  But we are mistaken if we think that this gives us reason not to try.

As two sophomore Nursing majors and Medical Humanities minors at Boston College, we feel a personal responsibility to give voice to stories of pain—including the suffering associated with physical, emotional, and mental illness and stress we have heard from our peers. We also feel called to elicit and validate the stories of pain which haven’t yet been told. Many suffer silently every day on campus, and our hope is to provide space for these people to share their stories and thus feel less isolated.

“Underheard HSC” (@underheard_hsc), the Instagram account we’ve launched, is dedicated to sharing anonymous short health stories and art pieces by and from college students. It aims to make stories of illness, disability, and loss in college more accessible to the students facing these challenges, to encourage those who aren’t naturally inclined to write about their experiences to share their stories, and to help those who haven’t experienced such challenges to join in conversations about health and illness with those around them.

In college, there is great stigma around diseases or injuries that are considered unusual in our age group. We are expected to be young, strong, and resilient to whatever comes our way. This presumption of healthiness makes it challenging for those who undergo debilitating illnesses to express themselves. When these experiences are under-discussed, it leads to misunderstandings about the reality of being sick, and about how to best respond to and care for those around us who are experiencing these challenges. For this reason, we are particularly interested in reaching college students through our work as interns at Health Story Collaborative.

Our hope is that Underheard HSC becomes a space where young people feel less alone in their pain and comfortable enough to submit quotes or short stories about their own health.

Each of us has or will deal with health challenges in our lifetime. It’s time to start talking about it.  By taking the time to listen to and express care for the stories of our peers, we will not only be showing them kindness, but we will also begin to make space for a kind of storytelling which can lead to emotional healing. Our greatest ambition is to inspire better communication and deeper human connection. We hope that this platform welcomes students to share and serves to validate and honor every health story.

Supporting unique projects and starting new conversations can sometimes be scary, but the barriers to discussing the difficulties of illness which we have comfortably hidden behind until now are the very reason we must take a leap and open our minds to the infinite stories of illness and pain existing around us.  Please join us in taking a small but important step in showing our peers that we care: follow @underheard_hsc on Instagram.

For questions or to submit a story, please email Evelyn and Heena at

Heena Nissaraly is a sophomore at Boston College majoring in Nursing and minoring in Medical Humanities. She aims to become an empathic nurse specialized in anesthesia or hospice care, and hopes to eventually improve healthcare in Madagascar.

Evelyn Caty is a sophomore at Boston College majoring in Nursing and minoring in Medical Humanities.  She discovered for herself the utter inexpressibility of pain when she suffered from undiagnosed back pain for many years, and she hopes to use this knowledge to encourage her peers struggling with health challenges to begin healing through the telling of their own stories. She, too, hopes to use her passion for the medical humanities and for storytelling to become a compassionate and effective nurse.

Breaking Out of the Isolation of Illness

An Interview with Molly Stewart, Mission Services Director at the Cancer Community Center of South Portland, Maine

By Val Walker

A Cancer diagnosis and treatment can be an isolating experience for many of us. I wanted to learn from Molly how a support organization like the Cancer Community Center could help us break out of isolation by fostering new friendships and a sense of community. On paper, of course, we could assume a community center was supposed to build connection, but in reality, I knew it was difficult to get people engaged after a life-changing illness such as cancer. What did it take to get people in person to bond again after a long period of being in survival mode and pain?

Val: A Cancer diagnosis can be an isolating experience. Molly, what does it take to break through the isolation many of us go through?

Molly: Breaking through isolation takes courage. After a cancer diagnosis, your social needs could change. And even though you know you need to take the first step, you might not even be sure what you’re looking for. You don’t know what to expect.

It can take a lot of courage just to walk through our doors at the Cancer Community Center. And before you’ve walked through our doors, it’s taken courage to recognize you’re lacking support and want to do something about it. It’s not unusual for people to express surprise, disappointment or frustration with responses to their cancer diagnosis.

Speaking of the courage to be open and vulnerable, I love the work of the author, Brené Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection, Braving the Wilderness). She writes beautifully about the courage it takes to show up for each other, and “letting ourselves be seen.”  Stepping into our doors at the Cancer Community Center is a statement that we’re brave enough to let ourselves be seen, to be open and vulnerable. We hope that is a healing step—just coming to the Center.

Val:  It’s heartening to hear how welcoming you are for those brave enough to step through your doors. Are most people looking for the same kinds of connections and resources?

Molly: It’s important to remember that everyone has different needs when it comes to social support. We’re each unique in what we want, and our social needs change over time. Some people coming to the Center are looking to expand their social network, and others just want a quiet, private space to talk with one another. Some people are aware that they lack social support and want to engage and make connections in the activities at the Center. Others may have enough support from family and friends, and want to talk with someone who has been there.

Val:  You offer classes, support groups, an individual buddy program, resources. What do you recommend for people living with cancer who feel fearful or hesitant about venturing into new connections?

Molly: I encourage people to take small steps in getting out again. You might ask, “What am I looking for?” Pay attention and become more aware of the social aspects in all areas of your life— your physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, and occupational needs. Who is there in these different areas of your life? By just being aware, assessing and reflecting how people influence us or nourish us (or not), we can choose what is best for us as we resurface from isolation. I’ve studied social science research, and as humans we are wired to be social. We want to belong and feel accepted.

Val:  I believe strongly that anyone recovering from isolation, whether from an illness, or a loss, needs a period of social recovery. During our ordeal when we’re in survival mode, we may have lost our confidence in how to connect with others. We might even feel despondent about people “not being there” for us. What do you have to say about our social recovery after a long, lonely period of feeling disconnected?

Molly: If we’ve been disconnected and isolated for a time, and experienced a major life change, we might need time and support to start connecting with others. We might have rusty social skills, less confidence in making connections, or the lens with which we are making connections has changed and we have to adjust to a new social perspective. What I witness with many of our community members is that they’re building social confidence, after a difficult life experience.

If your ability to connect socially were a muscle, after a time of change in your life (whether that is an illness, the birth of a child, or retirement) you might need to rebuild your social strength with conditioning, to practice in safe and supporting social situations. Once your social muscles are toned up, you feel more prepared to go out into the world, to your workplaces, families, friendships, and communities, having had safe and supportive social interactions that helped to integrate that experience into yourself.

Val: That’s a brilliant way of looking at rebuilding our confidence to be social again! Yes, it’s social conditioning, social muscling-up. Having the Cancer Community Center as a safe place to muscle-up and practice being socially active is a way to prepare us to get back out into the world. What have you learned from working at the Cancer Community Center as their mission services director?

Molly: Val, I’ve had the experience of interacting with hundreds of people diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones when they come to the Center to find support. We sit down often one-on-one with every new community member. When they first come in, they’re often scared and overwhelmed. We share information about the programs at the Center, how we can help and work together to identify what they’re most interested in. Many activities at the Center are based on a peer support model which means we create opportunities for people to connect with someone else who has had a similar experience. We offer support and educational groups, complementary therapies, nutrition and movement activities.  When someone who is recently diagnosed talks with another person who has been there and knows what it’s like to get that diagnosis and try to figure out the path ahead of them, it's like seeing a person in the dark find a flashlight. All of a sudden, there is hope. They understand that others have been down this path, and they're here to help and share what they learned, what worked, and what was hard for them, and that every experience is different. It's reassuring to know you’re not alone.

Val: Would you mind telling us a personal experience of breaking through an isolating time in your own life?

Molly: I have had several times, but the most powerful one was when my son was born. I was in grad school when Leo was born. First, there were not a lot of other pregnant grad students, and I was a new Mom. Talk about a life change--you’re sleep-deprived, have a huge responsibility of caring for another human being, and you have never done anything like this before. You feel totally challenged every day, and often I felt like I didn’t know how do this.

I was fortunate to have Birth Roots, a support organization for young parents in my city. I was attending a class for new parents, and heard how other parents were coping, or not. I received the benefit of learning that everything I was going through was normal—yes, crying that much is normal. It gave me more confidence in my new role as a mother.

After the group was over, I went back to school, and continued to identify ways to connect with other families. I knew that to have balance in my new role, I had to keep integrating the role of Mother into my identity. I was never a mother before, and now, five years later, that role keeps shifting.  First, I was a new parent, then I was the mother of a toddler, then a preschooler, and now have a son in elementary school. It's always changing, but what I have learned is that I need the social support of other parents because they “get it.” They are there, and that connection helps immensely to reduce the anxiety, isolation and confusion of trying to navigate the vast challenges of parenthood.

Val:  Thanks so much for your story and insights, Molly. It’s clear we need support organizations when we feel isolated by a major life change. It makes life so much easier to have people at the ready who understand our predicament, so we can practice being socially engaged in new ways. It’s heartening to learn from you how we can foster long-lasting, deep friendships, and a build a solid sense of community.

Molly: I enjoyed our time, and thanks so much.

For more information about the Cancer Community Center:

Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.

Keep up with Val at

When There’s No One to Call: Caring for Patients Who Lack Social Support

An interview with Dhruv Khullar,M.D., M.P.P.

By Val Walker

Introduction: Social Isolation is an Increasingly Important Topic

Could there be anything more frightening than going to a hospital alone for surgery, knowing that no one will be by your side when you wake up afterwards?  What if you have no one to turn to for help when you become seriously ill?

As a former rehabilitation case manager, I witnessed too many patients without social support. Too often I scrambled to contact any possible friends or relatives to help, and came up short with utterly no one available. I turned to social science research to better understand why people were so isolated. An alarming AARP study in 2012 on social isolation highlighted formidable barriers to social support:

  1. Living alone (Nearly 40% of adults over 65 are living alone.)

  2. Mobility or sensory impairment

  3. Major life transitions/losses.

  4. Socioeconomic status (low income, limited resources).

  5. Location (rural, unsafe or inaccessible neighborhoods)

  6. Being a caregiver for someone with a major impairment.

Moreover, the study revealed that full-time caregivers are mostly women who are often alone without support while struggling to take care of their own health care needs.

 The AARP study convinced me that being socially isolated is most often not a choice. Many societal and economic forces prevent us from being able to count on each other for support. Today we're more likely to find ourselves alone in a hospital regardless of how much or how little we've invested in our relationships. Indeed, in 2012, I found myself alone, stranded in a hospital bed after my hysterectomy because my friend failed to show up as planned. I had no one to take me home, and no one to check in on me during my first days after my surgery. I had made firm arrangements, but people just did not come through at the last minute. This shocking experience opened my eyes to how alone and stranded any of us can be.

Recently I read a New York Times article titled How Social Isolation is Killing Us by Dhruv Khullar, MD, who works at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Khullar's compassionate view of his socially isolated patients sparked my interest in contacting him for an interview. Annie Brewster and I were thrilled when he responded to our invitation and agreed to talk with us.

Q&A with Dhruv Khular, M.D.

You wrote a powerful piece for the New York Times called How Social Isolation is Killing Us. As a doctor at Mass General Hospital, do you personally see an increase in socially isolated patients?

Dhruv Khullar:  All the time--every day, I see real life evidence of how isolated people are. And social isolation is increasing.

Lots of interesting statistics are out there about social isolation, but it’s my personal experience that motivated me to write more about this problem. I see elderly as well as younger patients coping with a lack of social support. We’re now living in a world of smaller families, and we often lack the extended support that larger families once provided. I see older patients living without their core group of support after many of their loved ones have passed away. And many younger people are dealing with the stigma of addiction or mental health issues, so their social support has been thinning out.

In our digital age, we can have 1000 friends on Facebook, but who is going to show up at the hospital for us?  Who is really there in our support system? Many connections we have through social media are only secondary supports, not the one or two people we can really count on in a crisis.

What can doctors do to help socially isolated patients?

Dhruv Khullar:  I think it’s in the doctor’s purview to ask about the social needs of our patients. Doctors have an important opportunity to screen for social isolation just by asking a couple of questions. We can identify isolated patients by asking simple, concrete questions such as “Who do you have to talk to about your surgery?” Or “Is there someone to take care of you when you go home?” Just two or three basic questions can make a difference. Also, practical, care-based questions are less likely to be threatening for a patient.  Instead of starting with psychological issues (“Are you feeling lonely?”) we can ask, “Is someone coming by to see you today?”

And once we have identified a patient who lacks social support, we can make a referral to a social worker, chaplain or hospital volunteer. They are a crucial part of the team. Healthcare has become so complex, it’s better to deliver care in a team-based setting, especially for a patient who has no one to rely on. Though we as doctors can play a vital role in identifying socially isolated patients, we need to alert our team so these patients get connected to the best services that meet their needs.

What you said makes so much sense. It does seem natural that a doctor would ask questions about who is caring for you—who is there for you. And further, I’m wondering this:  If your doctor is genuinely concerned that you don’t have anyone there for you, could these questions encourage you to talk openly about your lack of support?

Dhruv Khullar:  Yes, I believe asking simple, care-based questions can make it easier for patients to have an honest conversation about their need for more support. And this conversation could alleviate some of the shame and distress about being alone without support. Conversations, even brief talks with doctors, have a way of normalizing what has felt uniquely embarrassing or shameful. A patient might not feel so alone when their doctor emphasizes that social isolation is a common problem.

You got me thinking about the stigma in our society that makes it so difficult to speak up if we lack social support, and are truly alone. We don’t want to appear “needy.” What do we do if we really don’t have people to turn to when we must have surgery, or find ourselves seriously ill? Isn’t talking about being alone and needing help a hard conversation to have?

Dhruv Khullar: Conversations can start with a doctor or healthcare provider, even if we are too ashamed to discuss our lack of support with someone else. Once the conversation has started, patients may be able to face their need for support with less shame and more action. Once again, care-based, concrete questions can help us speak openly, and begin planning our care, including making referrals for the support that is needed.

We need to have more conversations about social isolation. The more candid the better. Hopefully we will find the courage to ask, “Will you be there for me?” And we will keep talking until we know who we can count on.

Besides making referrals to hospital social workers, chaplains or volunteers, is there a particular resource that you find helpful when you identify a socially isolated patient?

Dhruv Khullar:  I highly recommend the Health Leads program. This service is available in many hospitals in Massachusetts and other areas of the country. It can help connect patients to services they need, with links to community resources.  I use it very often.

When interacting with a patient who is alone and lacking support, what do you say or do to put them at ease?

Dhruv Khullar:  In the busyness of the hospital what sometimes gets lost is the human connection. One patient I remember was dying alone, without any loved ones around. At those times, it’s important just to listen. So I listened to whatever he wanted to talk about. Being present was as valuable as anything else I could do.

In my experience, even in just a few minutes, there are moments for deep connection. If we make the time, we can deeply and honestly communicate about what’s most important.

I’m really moved by your words. Thank you so very much for your generosity and insight, Dr. Khullar. And I’m so grateful that you’re encouraging people to talk more about this problem of social isolation. You have validated for me just how vital it is to have honest, realistic conversations when we need to ask others to help us.

Dhruv Khullar:  Thank you, it was a pleasure to talk with you today.


More about Dhruv Khullar

Health Leads Program

AARP Study on Isolation: Framework for Isolation in Adults over 50

Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P. is a resident physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital with interests in health policy, economics, and journalism. He is a contributor at the New York Times and writes regularly for both mainstream and academic publications, exploring evolving trends in medicine and health care. He recently worked at the ABC News Medical Unit, where he helped curate and communicate health information, and was previously at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), focusing on Affordable Care Act implementation.

Khullar graduated with honors from Yale University (B.A. in Biology), and earned his medical degree (M.D.) at the Yale School of Medicine. He also received a Masters in Public Policy (M.P.P.) from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership. His work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Atlantic, Slate, Politico, and Scientific American. He was recently recognized by LinkedIn as one of the Top 10 Healthcare Professionals Under 35.


Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.

Keep up with Val at