This spring, four Stanford medical students wrote a children's book, Stanford Storytellers, which uses imagination to help children understand and feel comfortable in the hospital.
Authors Afaaf Shakir, Michael Nedelman, Karen Hong, and Zahra Sayyid, along with illustrator Emma Steinkellner, a Stanford undergraduate, came together through a call for interested Stanford Medicine students to collaborate on a children's book in honor of this year's Medicine and the Muse symposium's keynote speaker, Perri Klass, MD. Klass is a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University and a children's author who is involved with Reach Out and Read, a non-profit encouraging early childhood literacy in pediatric clinics.
"Funny enough," Nedelman told me, "all the med students who showed up to the [book] meeting were my classmates - third-years who should've probably been falling asleep on a couch somewhere. Things really clicked when we found Emma, whose visual style was perfect for the project." I recently spoke with Nedelman and the other group members over email, as coordinating their busy schedules was like herding cats!
Where does your perspective on a hospitalized child's experience come from?
Hong: I’m currently on my pediatrics rotation and I see a lot of children who would get some reassurance from a book like ours. Just today, I was talking to a little boy who really wanted to take his IV out. You have to keep your arm straight for days on end and deal with the uncomfortable feeling of having a needle in your arm - who would want that if they didn’t understand why it’s there? We talked about how the clear plastic tube delivers a magic “potion” into his system to fight off his infection and it was amazing how fast his attitude changed. This isn’t always the case with every patient but it’s nice to see the power of imagination at work.
Sayyid: I remember distinctly the first book series that I couldn't put down: Lurlene McDaniel's young adult books, which focused mainly on girls who were struggling with chronic illnesses and death. Each of her stories focused on a different girl with a different disease, almost all of which were fatal. Although I luckily did not experience much time in the hospital as a child, I remember reading those stories and thinking, "Wow, this could have been me."
Shakir: I grew up in a house with two pediatrician parents, which meant I never went to a doctor’s office, let alone a hospital. It wasn’t until I came to medical school that I realized that kids without physician parents have a totally different take on medicine than I did. It’s completely unfamiliar to them, and things aren’t often explained in a way that a kid can understand. That perspective has fueled me to empower patients (both adults and kids) with knowledge about their care and their bodies. In addition, being in medical school gives us the unique perspective of being young in our training (the ‘kids’ of medicine) where things are still new and strange, but also being medical ambassadors for our patients. We have enough knowledge to explain concepts without forgetting what it was like to not understand them. Writing this book has been a great reminder of the importance of that communication.
Nedelman: There are lots of people I’d love to see connect with the book: The 5-year-old chemo patient, seeing the hospital through a new lens. Or his classmates, who may not understand why he always seems to be missing class. Or the attending physician, perhaps with young kids, who understands that a little bit of imagination can really help reframe an unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable experience.
Shakir: Our ultimate hope is that our book reaches the children we are writing it for. We intentionally made our protagonist a character who was easily accessible to as many kids as possible.
Nedelman: We don’t know what condition this character has; it’s all in first-person so even the child’s gender is interpretable by the reader. And even though our protagonist is seen flying, floating in space, and rolling in a wheelchair, we actually never see this character walking around.
How do side projects like this affect your school-life balance?
Shakir: Side projects like these keep me sane and grounded. Working on the wards full-time and then coming home to study is grueling. It’s often easy to lose perspective and forget the world outside medicine exists. That, and it’s just fun to re-imagine the hospital as the place I sometimes wish it were!
Steinkellner: The illustration I do is both my work and my play, so this project has been a joy to work on, even in the midst of my classes. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of lecture or rehearsal and I’ll really be itching to work on the book. Sometimes I’m working on the book and that paper I have to write is nagging at me in the back of my mind. It’s a hard balance to strike for sure, but so worth it.
Sayyid: I think side projects are essential for proper mental health... We all need balance in our lives, and I think projects like this one actually help with my-time management skills. It has allowed me to reconnect with the clinical side of things even during my year off [working in a research lab] where I am having essentially zero patient contact.
What has the collaborative authorship and publishing process been like?
Nedelman: The story built itself over many whiteboard sessions, coffee chats, and even a meeting with Courtney Moreland, a child life specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. We usually think of illustrations as following the actual writing of the story, but Emma’s art informed the narrative and helped steer the storyline in the right direction. Everyone in this group has a unique energy and brand of creativity, and this book is a product of that. Even though we had our first reading at Medicine and the Muse, we're still finalizing the book and deciding on a title. We're looking forward to a summer release once we dot and cross our i’s and t’s.
Previously: Stanford's Medicine and the Muse event mixes music, dance, and pediatrics, Prescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in "narrative medicine", Stanford med student discusses his documentary on LGBT vets' health, Literature and medicine at life's end and Can a caterpillar book encourage healthy-eating habits for kids?
Photos are illustrations from Stanford Storytellers by Emma Steinkellner