For the last few years, I’ve been a writer in residence at the Stanford Medical School. I was hired by an incredible woman, she’s a poet and an anesthesiologist, named Audrey Shafer, and she started the Medicine and the Muse Program to reintroduce humanities back into medical education and training.
My job was to teach writing, storytelling and general communication skills to physicians, nurses, medical students and other health care workers. And I thought I’d get a ton of great student essays about dissecting cadavers and poems about the spleen.
And I did. But almost immediately, I started getting more essays that made me really anxious and really worried. My students were writing about their crushing anxiety, the unbearable pressure on them to succeed, their mental health diagnoses, their suicide attempts, how alone and isolated they felt and wondered if they’d gone into the right profession, and they weren’t even doctors yet.
This is my student Uriel Sanchez.
Uriel Sanchez: The choice you are given through medicine, from a lot of your mentors even, is like, you have to choose, like, being a really good person or a really good doctor.
Laurel Braitman: Physicians’ own humanity and emotional well-being are almost never made a core part of their training or even acknowledged. And real vulnerability, like sharing certain mental health diagnoses, for example, can be absolutely career-ending.
But nearly 30 percent of American medical students are depressed, and one in 10 have thought about suicide. And it’s actually even worse for practicing physicians. There’s really widespread job dissatisfaction, high rates of depression, and doctors have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession in the United Sates.
This is scary. Not just for them but for us, too. I really think doctors have the most important job. And if their lives are at stake, ours are, too. Now, I am absolutely not a mental health professional, I’m a writer, which most days is absolutely the complete and total opposite.
But I can tell you that the more opportunities that I give health care workers to share their daily frustrations, their fears, their joys, what surprises them, what they resent, the better they seem to feel.
So at Medicine and the Muse, we offer evening, weekend and day-long storytelling workshops at farms and other places with really good food. I invite other journalists, writers, producers, podcasters and poets, and they teach writing, communication and storytelling skills to our participants.
And those participants practice being vulnerable by sharing their stories out loud with one another. And in doing so, they reconnect with what drew them to medicine in the first place. These are the skills they’ll draw on when they realize and are confronted with the stressful, messy reality of the work they’ve chosen.
This is how they realize it’s a calling. So I have a prescription here for you today. It’s not from physicians, it’s for them, and I asked my students for help. And before I start, let me just say I work with doctors, but I’m absolutely convinced that this applies to almost any profession, especially those of us who are so committed to our work, and it can be so intense and overwhelming, that sometimes we forget why we chose to do it in the first place.
To me, sharing a true vulnerable story is a lot like raising a flag up a flagpole. Other people see it, if they agree with it and it resonates with them, they come and stand under it with you. That’s what my student Maite Van Hentenryck did.
Maite Van Hentenryck: I mean, it was super anxiety-inducing, and I shared parts of myself that I really have probably told five classmates. LB: When Maite was a baby, she had to have her leg amputated.
When she got to medical school, she was taking just a standard class quiz, and she got asked the question, “Please tell us about the first time you encountered someone with a disability.” She wondered if her supervisors had ever considered that the person with the disability was her, the doctor.
So she talked about it in front of about 100 of her friends, peers, which is a big deal, because, you know, she’s really shy. And afterwards, what happened, is a number of students with disabilities, that she didn’t know, came up to her and asked her to colead a group on campus that’s now advocating for more visibility and inclusion in medical training.
In English, we tend to call people creatives if they have a certain job. Like, designer or architect or artist. I hate that term. I think it’s offensive and exclusionary. Creativity doesn’t belong to a certain group of people.
A lot of my work with physicians and medical students is just reminding them that no matter what profession we choose, we can make meaning, find beauty in the hard stuff and create. This is medical student Pablo Romano.
Pablo Romano: My parents immigrated here from Mexico many years ago, and when I was in college, they passed away. I was 18 when my dad died and then 20 when my mom died.
LB: Not only has Pablo been talking publicly for the first time about being an orphan, but together, we started a live storytelling series we’re calling Talk Rx, and it’s become a really popular place for his peers to show their most vulnerable and powerful thoughts and feelings.
PR: I go to a school that cares so much about data and research and numbers. At the end of the day, what moves people is stories.
LB: Arifeen Rahman is a second-year medical student. And before she was born, her parents immigrated from Bangladesh to the United States.
She grew up in a really beautiful home in Northern California, very safe and stable, her parents are still together, she never went hungry, and she graduated from Harvard.
Arifeen Rahman: I didn’t feel like the stories I had were worth telling or that they mattered.
LB: Arifeen did have stories, though. Recently, she gave a talk about being maybe the only Bangladeshi American girl to win an essay contest from the Daughters of the American Revolution — and then dress up for Halloween as the Declaration of Independence.
And I love Arifeen’s story so much, because to me it represents all that is good and bad and hard and exhausting about representing the new American dream.
AR: The hardest thing was coming up against that voice that was telling me no one wants to hear my stories, like, why invest the time in this thing that doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scale of life.
Maybe the biggest thing is, like, maybe it does.
LB: Life is so short. For me, the only thing, really, that matters with my time here is feeling like I can connect with other people and maybe make them feel slightly less alone.
And in my experience, that’s what stories do absolutely the best. So, my student and a collaborator in a lot of these endeavors is Candice Kim. She’s an MD-PhD student in medical education. She’s written about #MeToo in medicine, navigating her queer identity in a conservative field and her mom’s metastatic cancer diagnosis.
And recently, she started also doing some really interesting research about our work. Candace Kim: We’ve seen that students who participate in our storytelling opportunity show between a 36 and 51 percent decrease in distress.
LB: If this was a mental health drug, it would be an absolute blockbuster. Results seem to last up to a month. It might be longer, a month is just when Candice stopped measuring. So we don’t even know.
Not only that, but 100 percent of our participants recommend these opportunities to a friend. For me, though, the most important thing that our work has done is create a culture of vulnerability in a place where there was absolutely none before.
I think what this does is that it allows doctors and other folks an opportunity to envision a different kind of future for themselves and their patients. This is Maite again.
MVH: I want to be the doctor that remembers when your birthday is without having to look at the chart.
And I want to be the doctor who knows what my patient’s favorite color is and what TV shows they like to watch. I want to be the doctor that’s remembered for listening to people and making sure I take care of all of them and not just treating their disease.
LB: Being human is a terminal condition. We all have it, and we are all going to die. Helping health care professionals communicate more meaningfully with each other, with their patients and with themselves is certainly not going to magically change everything that is wrong with the contemporary health care system, and it’s not going to live to the immense burdens we place on our physicians, but it is absolutely key in making sure that our healers are healthy enough to heal the rest of us.
Communicating with each other with vulnerability, listening with compassion, is, I believe, the absolute best medicine that we have.