Sunday, September 25, 2011


But let's be fair. It's not just misery that loves company, it's most other moods and people! 

A New York Times story from last February explores how "When Patients Share Their Stories, Health May Improve." The article opens with the case of a man awaiting a liver transplant. He exercised to make sure he could withstand the operation itself. But he was still afraid that he wouldn't be strong enough physically or mentally to survive afterwards. So what did he do? He talked with other patients. He told his doctor, who wrote the article, "You doctors have answered all of my questions, but what I really needed was to hear the stories about transplants from people like me." It was those stories, he says, that "made me believe I'd be O.K."

The positive impact of story-sharing has been understood anecdotally for quite some time. But now the release of a research study -- the occasion for the article in the Times -- lends additional scientific rigor to the field of "narrative medicine." (You can listen to my podcast interview with Rita Charon, director of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia med school, here.) Some of the nearly 300 high-blood-pressure patients in the study responded well to hearing the videotaped stories of others with the same malady -- so long as they were culturally-appropriate, i.e. that they were from someone of the same culture. 

It is on the same logic that other health story sites operate. Patient Stories (logo at top), for example, features text stories on various conditions, and invites users to submit their own stories to be written up. They have published a book of some of those stories. Health Talk Online hosts over 2,000 video and text stories of people with diverse health problems, organized by type of problem, gender, age, and so on; a twin site, Youth Health Talk, is geared towards the young'uns. The former site headlines a quote from Philip Pullman: "True stories are ... nutritious and sustaining. They feed the mind with information and the heart with hope and strength."

An open question I have is why we like hearing stories from "people like me," or -- if this is the same thing -- "culturally appropriate" stories. Intuitively it makes sense; If I had cancer or hypertension of another serious condition, I think I'd be more likely to given "hope and strength" by the stories of people who share my age or race or gender or class or language. Or maybe even my height! I could more readily identify with them, just as I more readily identify with characters in movies who are more rather than less similar to me. But why shouldn't I be able to draw strength and hope from people who are different than me culturally? A failure of the imagination? I don't know.