May 9, 2020

I am writing to welcome you. I am Laura, the founder of the Narrative Healthcare program at Lenoir-Rhyne University. I work closely with my students on developing this simple little site. I am very glad you have “subscribed.” A few days ago, just before class, I made a Tweet thread on Twitter. Normally my tweets receive a like from my teenager, and that suffices. After class, I looked at my phone and saw the tweet was doing something said teenager calls “blowing up.” Thousands had liked and retweeted it.

287,000 people have liked it. More than 50,000 have retweeted it. And more than 2.5 million have “engaged” the entire thread. I wish to share my favorite comment with you:

Perhaps Dr I speaks for all of us. We all “need more humanity” in our lives right now. This is why we made this site.

May you find what you need.

We cannot thank you enough.


Laura Hope-Gill

Witness Fatigue and Narrative

Narrative Sessions on Saturdays at 3 p.m. in May

Witness Fatigue is that particular exhaustion that comes from seeing awful things happen to others. Call it empathy fatigue and witness fatigue as well. Photojournalists, journalists, healthcare providers, first responders all experience this: exhaustion from seeing. While we cope with the changes of the quarantines we are also seeing horrific treatment of people—utter neglect and even active cruelty in which the vulnerabilities are taken advantage of and exacerbated. We are seeing reckless endangerment of “essential workers” and global public health. This fatigue is one of the many that we are communally enduring. It is one of many stresses in this moment.

Also, we are hearing of friends’ loved ones—and of the loved ones of strangers dying unwitnessed, alone, and how no funerals are happening, people are grieving unwitnessed.

We, too, are facing challenges and stresses we once could talk over with friends for hours in person. We experience them now for the most part unwitnessed.

So, we are witnessing a lot and we are in need of being witnessed. There are dimensions of witness. Witnessing ourselves, witnessing ourselves bearing witness, and bearing witness. This is a lot to carry without some means of processing.

This is a cornerstone of narrative medicine work. On Saturday at 3 pm Eastern, I will facilitate a Narrative Session in Zoom. I’ll post event. We will close-read a passage or a poem and then engage in an informal reflective-writing session. Then we will listen to one another in a entirely non-judgement and purely witnessing posture. After, we will feel we have processed some of this story and have an instrument to maintaining the witness stance and posture going forward.…

Meeting will close at 3:10. Be on time.

A Lesser Known Work, Recently Discovered

Daniel J. Waters, DO, MA

Stratford-on-Avon, UK   Bard scholars are abuzz about a newly discovered manuscript thought to be an early draft of perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous drama, Hamlet. The single section of decipherable text appears to be a portion of a longer soliloquy. The draft is thought to have been written during the cold, damp spring of  1609  when England’s most well-known playwright had a bad cold or perhaps might have even been suffering from the influenza virus.

The play was originally titled Droplet and only later in the year was it renamed. The speech is given by Droplet, the main protagonist of this early version. Perhaps due to the infectious nature of the author’s illness, the soliloquy questions – as we do today – whether obscuring one’s nose and mouth with an opaque physical barrier confers any true benefit in times of epidemic:

To mask or not to mask,
That is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind
To suffer the slings and arrows
Of outrageous aerosols
Or take PPE against a sea of capsids
And by opposing resist them
To cough, perchance to breathe,
Ay, there’s the pleural rub

The references to acute  upper respiratory illness were later removed (perhaps once Shakespeare had recovered) and the speech revised, becoming what is perhaps the most quoted block of text in the English language.

Shakespeare purists have decried the find as a hoax, citing the anachronistic medical terminology and dismissing it as “FakeBard.”  This has ignited an unbridled and often pithy Tweetstorm of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. Jeff Chaucer, a Professor of
Classics at Oxford, opined that “Sometimes the funniest things are true.”

Definitive authentication of the manuscript is ongoing by what a spokeswoman for the Royal Shakespeare Society referred to as “top men” and was incomplete when this report was filed.

A meeting with the facilitators

Yesterday, I met with the team of facilitators, whose bios you can find on the Presenters page of this website. I invite you to read them to see just how varied a team we are. A thoracic surgeon, two community-development social workers, two pastors, a nurse manager, a public health general practitioner, a ER physician assistant, and a public health program developer. Those are their titles. When we come together as classmates and colleagues, even after a year since our last gathering, we settle into a friendship and conversation with purpose and joy.

All had never heard of Narrative Medicine or Narrative Healthcare (my term for the mix of Narrative Medicine, Poetic Medicine, and Expressive Writing presented as ways of incorporating writing into clinical practice) when they first contacted or heard about me. I explained it as well as I could. How do you find a language that bridges two languages?

After one close-reading session and one reflective-writing exercise, each one saw the value of Dr. Charon’s method. It sounds so simple. The process is. The effects are anything but. Reading stories and writing reflectively changes us. It complexifies that which we thought we understood, about ourselves, about the world, about our place in it. It makes us more self-aware while providing the means for living in this complexity. When we gather and when we talk about how we will facilitate and guide others in narrative practice, it is with trust and recognition.

We have all walked along the path we are inviting attendees to join us on. We have found the language for the bridge between languages, and we are excited to share it. And we thank Dr. Charon for providing the materials for so building.


Why Attend This Event?

I know how much time you devote to listening to your patients and attend to the many aspects of caring for them, from the human connection to the nights up-late with the Electronic Medical Record. I know you know how to do your job. This symposium isn’t happening to tell you aren’t doing enough. Unless, that “enough” is for yourself.

See, Narrative Medicine isn’t just about providing genuine and circumspect care for patients. It is also about attend to your own care. Let me explain.

I teach doctors, nurses, surgeons, chaplains, and social workers how to read stories the way I did in undergraduate English classes and in graduate school for creative writing. I’ve been doing this work for five years. In that time, I have heard every argument against Narrative Medicine there is, from my own students. Then, after a couple of weeks, without any severe undertaking, everyone notices they are being in the world in a different way from before.

I’m not saying they all reached nirvana or something like that. Being a reader of stories and a writer of reflective and creative pieces simply changes how we see, feel, hear, taste, touch, smell, and otherwise engage the world around us.

This is what this is about: being in the world in a different way.

We were all told we had to choose between the arts and the sciences as though there wasn’t room in each of us for both. Later in life, as many of my students find, whatever side they “chose” or were placed in seeks its counterpart. People who pursued the arts get fascinated with natural sciences. People who pursued the sciences get interested in meditation and writing.

What if we never divided them in the first place? What if we allowed our clinicians to also be creatives? What if we didn’t withhold an inner life of reflection, emotional sustenance, and imaginstion from people just because they’re good at math and science?

What I see in my students is a renewed joy in life. Nothing less than that. Some publish books now. Some find delight in writing little notes to patients who are leaving the E.R. all bandaged up. Some find that writing helps them say good-bye to patients whether they lived or died. The ways people employ Narrative practice in day-to-day life are countless.

This is why you should come to the symposium: to see what you will do.