Healing Through Stories


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

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.

By Vicki Rackner MD, 2005

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