Listening to Patient Narratives

Cancer

In Latin, the word “patient” means “one who suffers,” or “I am suffering.” Even in the literal translation, there’s no beating around the bush when it comes to what it’s like to live with illness. The experience of being a patient often involves significant pain and feelings of vulnerability that isolate and destabilize one’s sense of self and relations to others. In the midst of a global pandemic and domestic unrest, these experiences are certainly exacerbated. “One who suffers,” on second thought, may be an understatement.  

When I was seven years-old, my dad experienced a severe episode of heart arrhythmia. I’ve grown up seeing my dad as my own real-life superhero, someone who can build, fix, or solve anything. But when he was whisked away on an ambulance in the dead of night, I was overwhelmed by the reality that he was not whole. He needed to be fixed too. I always felt incredibly frustrated by my inability to help my dad in any substantial way, other than to squeeze his hand and show him cards my friends from school had written for him.

            “Get better soon, it’s not your fault,” one read.

The next few years had more ambulance rides in store for my dad, as well as nights spent sleeping in hospital lobbies for my mom and me. On one of those nights, my dad noticed I was particularly anxious, glued to his vital signs on the monitor and wincing at each arrhythmic beat. My dad has a knack for telling stories, so he regaled me with one he had previously kept to himself. It was about his first ambulance ride. After he was done, he asked me, “I feel better, do you feel better?”

By directly narrating a part of his illness experience to me, my dad not only allayed my fears and uncertainty, but also his. I felt less like a helpless, worried bystander and more like a strong stakeholder and team member in his healing journey, all because I heard just one part of his illness experience.

Stories are part of the complex process of healing, both for those who share and those who listen. I believe storytelling builds compassion, strengthens relationships, and allows us to discover ourselves in one another. I’ve experienced firsthand that when we listen intently to one another, and share our experiences with one another, we are better caring for and stronger tied to one another.

Each patient has a unique narrative to contribute. The process of listening to and sharing these narratives can encourage feelings of trust, belonging, and connection between doctors, patients, and caregivers. Understandably, narratives like my dad’s deal with great grief and suffering, and can easily be kept to oneself. But if we create spaces where we can meaningfully listen to one another, the public expression of this otherwise private grief and suffering can enable us to come together, especially during these uncertain times, around a shared sense of vulnerability. Then, we can help transform patients from those who suffer to those who share, teach, and ultimately, thrive.


Armaun is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Biology and Health & Societies. He is passionate about bedside medicine, radiation oncology, and care giving. In his spare time, he loves reading short stories, playing the piano, and exploring his hometown of San Diego, California.

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