Stanford’s Abraham Verghese, MD, greeted hundreds of journalists at the Association of Health Care Journalists 2015 conference last evening with a talk centered on the power of stories and of medicine.
The conference, held this year in Santa Clara, Calif., and co-hosted by Stanford Medicine, brings together journalists from a variety of outlets to solidify their scientific knowledge, enhance their journalism skills and network with colleagues. (As a reminder, we’ll be live tweeting from the conference today and tomorrow; you can follow us at @StanfordMed.)
Verghese is a physician and educator, born in Ethiopia to Indian parents. But he’s also an established writer, author of numerous essays and several books, including Cutting for Stone and My Own Country. In that way, he is “really one of us,” said Karl Stark, president of the AHCJ.
Like journalists, Verghese has an abiding interest in storytelling. But his stories stray from the researchers-made-this-discovery narratives that often occupy health-care journalists. Verghese’s stories are tales of lost loves and the act of toasting death with a glass of champagne. They’re the stories of people, of patients, and of the importance of listening and being present.
There are many types of stories that need to be told, Verghese encouraged his audience. Tell about the company that dominates medical-record keeping, of families who can’t allow their loved ones to pass away peacefully, of young physicians and students who are determined to place patients first, despite the dominance of technology.
And perhaps most importantly, writers should tell the story of medicine itself: of what it can and cannot do, of where it has been and where it is going.
In that vein, Verghese shared a story with his rapt audience. As a physician in rural Tennessee in the 1980s, he cared for many patients with HIV/AIDS. At the time, doctors had no drugs, nothing that could thwart the disease’s progress. Yet when one patient’s mother called the clinic one day, saying her son was too sick to come in, Verghese said he felt compelled to visit the family in their rural trailer home. He wasn’t ready for the patient to die without seeing him again. “My visit had a profound effect on him and the family. It helped them come to terms and that I wouldn’t abandon them,” Verghese said.
This was a revelation, he admitted. This is what doctors did before antibiotics and sterile operating rooms and medical devices galore. “They were able to heal, even when they could not cure.” And that is a power that today’s doctors should never forget that attests to the power of the patient-physician relationship, he said.
Medicine has other stories to share as well. In the past, metaphors abounded in medicine: the strawberry tongue of scarlet fever, the apple-core lesion of tuberculosis, the saber shin of the tibia, Verghese said. Yet now, despite the abundance of new conditions, metaphors are achingly absent, signifying a growing gap between the doctor as data scientist and the patient.
And then there’s the story of the body itself, one that future physicians may not know how to read, Verghese said. He said he jokes that if a patient came in with a missing limb, doctors wouldn’t be able to confirm the diagnosis without a variety of tests. “We really have stopped looking at the patient,” he said.
And that is one reason why journalists, as storytellers, are important. “Stories are the units of life; they’re how we extract meaning,” he said.
Previously: Live tweeting from Association of Health Care Journalists conference, A “grand romp through medicine and metaphor” with Abraham Verghese, Abraham Verghese: “A saintliness in so many of my patients”, Abraham Verghese discusses stealing metaphors and the language of medicine at TEDMED, Abraham Verghese urges Stanford grads to always remember the heritage and rituals of medicine and Stanford’s Abraham Verghese honored as both author and healer
Photo courtesy of Abraham Verghese