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The Importance of Storytelling in Medicine


His fiancée calls him “The Storyteller.”

We sit down outside a cafe during a warm August evening. Still clad in his hospital scrubs, he just finished a shift as a pulmonary/critical care fellow at Rhode Island Hospital.

Dr. Mohammed Nayeemuddin — known as Zeeshan — takes off his headphones, sips his iced coffee and begins to tell his story.

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It all started in his fourth year of medical school. While driving to residency interviews, he discovered The Moth, a radio program focused on sharing true stories from first-person perspectives. The Moth hosts story slams, so as more and more free time opened up, he and his classmates traveled to nearby New York City to attend a few. The slams floored him: listening to people’s stories, he realized just how raw, honest and vulnerable they were.

Born in India, Zeeshan moved to the U.S. as a child and eventually attended Rutgers University and New Jersey Medical School. As he moved through the world of medicine, storytelling became an act of self-reflection. To take a step back and ruminate over the day’s events, the people encountered, the feelings that came and went. For Zeeshan, it’s a way to process life in the wards.

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Why is storytelling important?

“It’s the group experience,” Zeeshan explains. “The feeling that you are not alone.”

Zeeshan began sharing stories in forums like The Moth. Even with a small group of friends around a table, people can swap experiences, share thoughts, insights and opinions. Listening makes someone feel heard.

People often put up a facade, or they think everyone has their life together. “In reality,” Zeeshan says, “we’re human.” We can get sad, happy, confused and everything in between. When people tell a story, they can be vulnerable. “Insides are unveiled,” Zeeshan explains.

Storytelling is also a way to combat burnout. Medicine is not the easiest job, and medical school can be tough at times, with its unique challenges and pressures (self-imposed, familial or societal). Burnout is real. We may be consumed by work or may feel burdened by the load. Our own compassion may even start to chip away as the years go by.

In 2008, a survey study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that 49.6% of medical students experienced burnout. This can persist in residency and beyond: from 2011-2014, the rate of burnout among physicians in the U.S. had increased.

Zeeshan cautions, “You’ll experience low moments in medicine. Maybe a patient dies on your ICU shift.”

For Zeeshan, this did happen. He describes a patient under his care, a young man who eventually passed away before being able to donate his organs. After this experience, Zeeshan retreated for a few days, trying to comprehend what happened. He fell into despondency. Later, he opened up in front of his co-interns, revealing his grief. They encouraged him to share this story with others. After asking the family for their permission to share their son’s story, Zeeshan gave a story slam talk at an Annals meeting. Telling the story to his co-interns, and later to a larger audience, helped him process the experience and recover. Storytelling ultimately helps him become a better doctor, too. For Zeeshan, he doesn’t forget those experiences or the people who have impacted him.

As we learn and practice humanism in medicine, we are called to view patients in a bigger context — to see them as people, with families and friends and a life outside of the wards of a hospital. Physicians are also human. Zeeshan noticed that many artists, poets and musicians would attend and speak at story slams, but rarely did he meet any healthcare providers. He encourages medical students, physicians, and anyone involved in medicine to share with one another and lend a listening ear.

Recently he helped launch an initiative at Temple University, his former residency site. Opening it to all medical school students in Philadelphia, Zeeshan collaborated to create a forum, a kind of open mic night, for individuals to share their stories.

Last February, something similar occurred at Alpert Medical School (AMS) in Providence. Through a collaboration between AMS students and The Brown/Trinity Repertory MFA Theater Program, “Progress Notes” became a forum for raw and honest stories about the various medical school experiences that rarely are discussed in the hallways of school or in the hospitals. From the poignant to the hilarious, the mundane to the moving, these monologues discussed anatomy, studying, personal lives (or lack thereof), patient interactions, the inspirational and everything in between.

Sarah Bourne and Jack Arsenault, both 2nd-year AMS students, worked with Addie Gorlin of the Trinity Rep program and the Office of Student Affairs to launch “Progress Notes.” Our experiences in medicine and health care, or people we know, or even strangers we meet, “really affect the way we go into our next clinical experience,” Sarah says. Sharing stories is a way to build community and to know you are not alone.

Like Zeeshan, both Sarah and Jack agree that storytelling is a powerful way to process medical experiences. Stories are told on a small scale. When a student gathers a history from a patient and then recounts that information to the attending, that’s a mode of storytelling. On a larger scale, synthesizing and translating those experiences in a way the general public can understand is also powerful.

Sharing stories with a group of people can take on additional meanings, too. Once you tell a story, people may respond with different perspectives and interpretations, spurring dialogue. “We bear witness to many moments in medicine that could be sad or traumatic, an emotional burden that providers carry,” Sarah explains. We all come into medical school with our own experiences of illness — or know close family and friends who have — that shape our lens. “We just wanted to provide a space for people to share.”

Both also wrestled with the ethics behind gathering and sharing these stories. We often meet people at their most vulnerable times — is it our story to tell? What about HIPAA? “If someone came to the event and realized they were the patient being portrayed in the story, is this ok?” Jack poses the question, wondering out loud if this is more for the benefit of society, or the physician, or the patient, and ideally he wishes for all three. Sometimes that question is hard to tease out, so he continues to grapple with these ideas. Still, there is so much learning and empathy-building that occur when hearing other people’s experiences. We are called to process in a thoughtful and intentional way.

“We can’t avoid emotion,” Jack says. Circumventing it can contribute to burnout. He calls us to not be afraid of tackling our own emotions. Everyone has different ways for navigating the experiences we undergo. For many people it could be writing, or storytelling, but whatever the case may be, it is best to not brush those aside, but rather to face those experiences.

As day gives way to night (and Zeeshan needs to go home to eat dinner), he leaves us with this: amidst all the trials and triumphs of medicine, he encourages us to enjoy what we do. “Medicine is not your life. Your identity is more than just being a doctor,” he advises. Every person has a story to tell. “There’s not a story that’s not worth telling,” Zeeshan affirms. It’s worth sharing yours.

Anna Delamerced Anna Delamerced (10 Posts)

Writer-in-Training

Warren Alpert Medical School


Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Anna Delamerced is a 2nd-year medical student at Brown University, with a background in Public Health and creative writing. As she continues on this journey, she is grateful to learn from teachers and fellow classmates. If you have a story to share, she'd love to hear from you.