Narrative Medicine Heals Bodies and Souls
Want to heal? Tell your story.
image by Stuart Bradford / www.theispot.com/artist/sbradford
The year is 1973, the setting Stanford University School of Medicine. “Life is a relentless progression toward death, disease, and decay,” asserts a professor. “The physician’s job is to slow the rate of decline.” A student takes issue.
Perceiving a need for a parallel path to biomedicine, the young man finds a Cherokee healer with whom to study. He continues learning from indigenous elders as he makes his way through Stanford, the Psychological Studies Institute in Palo Alto, and Massey University in New Zealand. Today, Lewis Mehl-Madrona is a champion of narrative medicine, which asserts the importance of an individual’s whole life story to the person’s health—not just the medical history, but a story that includes ancestors and friends, interests and spiritual orientation.
As a doctor, Mehl-Madrona helps patients discover their own stories of illness and create ones of healing that pull them forward toward recovery. These stories help create hope and a path to wellness—features often lacking in the “story” that patients get from mainstream medicine based on statistics and life expectancy tables.
Mehl-Madrona’s efforts to bring narrative medicine into mainstream practice seem to be making headway. This fall, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons began offering a master’s degree in narrative medicine. Mehl-Madrona is currently an associate professor of psychology at Argosy University in Hawaii.
What do you mean by “narrative medicine”?
Narrative medicine is the encompassing of our awareness of health and disease into a storied structure. We embed the illness into the life story of the person in such a way that we discover meaning and purpose in both the illness and the experience of recovery.
It’s hard, sometimes, to give a simple definition, but in a diagnostic sense, the label of “sickness” becomes secondary to the life of the person who has a particular sickness. In order for a person to get well, there has to be a story, one that everyone believes, that leads the individual back to health.
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