Words and medicine: the doctor as storyteller

It’s July, and that means it’s time once more for Minnesota Medicine’s annual issue devoted to creative writing by Minnesota physicians and medical students. The July edition of the magazine, which is published by the Minnesota Medical Association, was recently posted online. It contains the winning entries in the annual "Medical Musings" contest, which this year drew some two dozen entries.

Why write? Because words can be powerful medicine, explains Dr. Charles Meyer, the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

You get to tell a tale from this amazing work we physicians do. You get to pause from that work, think about it, and see what it means. And you get to let that work enter your being and change you and the way you view it.

And, it should be added, it can change the reader as well.

The winning student entry comes from Rebecca Stepan, a medical student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Her poem, "Gone but Not Forgotten," was inspired by a cancer patient who wanted to donate her body to research.

Dr. Therese Zink, a family physician in Zumbrota, penned the winning physician entry, "On the Navajo Reservation", an account drawn from her own experience of working on a reservation in Arizona.

An excerpt:

I pick up a chart from the plastic holder on the door; the complaint reads "weakness." Marge, one of the Navajo nurses, comes up behind me and says, "Mr. Anderson is one of the few authentic medicine men. The weakness is in his chest."

I knock and enter with Marge. Mr. Anderson is accompanied by his grandson and his grandson’s girlfriend. Their shiny black hair in identical ponytails, tied at the nape of their necks, reaches to their waists. They are casually dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. In contrast, Mr. Anderson has dressed up to come to the clinic, as most elders do. He wears a crisp blue denim shirt buttoned at the neck with a bolo-tie clasped with a turquoise stone framed in silver filigree. He sits in the chair next to the desk, the skin of his face and neck the texture of weathered wood.

I introduce myself and extend my hand. Palm touches palm, the Navajo handshake. I mention the rain in the east and, perching on the stool in front of him, inquire about the weakness.

Entries that earned an honorable mention will be published in upcoming editions of Minnesota Medicine.

If this taste of medicine and the humanities whets your appetite for more, here’s a roundup, also from the current issue of Minnesota Medicine, of the creative ways in which the visual arts, story-telling and music are being applied in the world of medicine. "Journey into the Unknown" profiles a physician who is using documentary film-making – and turning the camera’s lens onto his own story – to promote the importance of health screenings. "Tales from the Clinic" describes how medical students at rural training sites use writing to tell stories and gain insight about what they’re learning. And "The Year of Living Creatively" introduces us to six medical students who combine their medical studies with a pursuit of the arts.

This is the sixth year Minnesota Medicine has hosted its "Medical Musings" contest. Entries from 2008 can be found here. Here’s the 2007 issue, which takes a closer look at medicine and films, and the 2006 "Med Poets Society" issue, which focuses on poetry.

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