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Stanford med students hone their storytelling skills under the stars

When Ruth Marks came to Stanford's medical school, she hoped to find a way to share her love of improv with her fellow students and to try to incorporate it into her medical education. Marks talked to Audrey Shafer, MD, director of the Medicine and the Muse program at Stanford, who put her in touch with the program’s writer in residence, Laurel Braitman, PhD -- and within weeks, Stanford’s very first storytelling camping retreat was created.

The retreat took place at Soul Food Farm, a beautiful organic farm 86 miles north east of Stanford in Vacaville, once the fresh fruit capital of California. In this idyllic setting, 30 medical students set up tents in the olive grove on the farm and then gathered for lunch at a picnic table under a spreading oak tree to meet special guest faculty there to lead them through several storytelling exercises. Faculty included Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, who had recently been on the set of a HBO film based on the book, starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne, who plays Skloot.  (The movie will air in 2017). Also there were Annie Brown, a reporter and radio producer and former medical student, and Jordan Bass, executive editor of McSweeney’s Publishing.

Armed with low-tech notepads and pens, the students broke into three groups and rotated around the farm grounds, setting up in various locations to learn about storytelling and participate in writing exercises. Skloot told the students to look for the moments that make them say “Wait, what??” as a source of writing material. She also encouraged them to always carry a notepad, and write things down at the end of the day if they could. “Because I always thought I would remember things, and of course I didn’t,” she laughed. Bass led the students in experimenting with a different from of writing a story, in a numbered format. And Brown led a brainstorming session about unique ideas for podcasts. At each session, students had the opportunity to share the writing they did there in the moment.

students-in-hammocksDinner was served outside at a colorful assortment of tables and chairs set up under the stars and consisted of fresh, organic vegetables, cheese and bread made on the farm. After dinner, the group gathered around the fire pit to make s’mores and participate in various campfire games, competing for the opportunity to spend the night in a comfy bed set up under a large white tent.

The workshop continued the next morning, as several students swung in the hammocks strung between the trees, and others sat petting two large farm dogs. Many of the students were reluctant to leave. “This was an amazing experience, and a much-needed break,” said Sarah Shlegel, a third-year medical student. “I feel rejuvenated and recommitted to writing.”

Bonnie Wong, another third year, said the workshops made her realize how much storytelling there is in medical care. “We are privileged to hear our patients’ stories, and when we present a patient case, we are in fact telling a story.” Looking around the beautiful farm, medical student Nuriel Moghavem smiled and said, “How lucky are we to have this opportunity during a busy, stressful time? Thank you.”

Previously: Physician-writers reflect on uncertainty in medicineMedical students and physicians share their writings on "becoming a real doctor" and Medical students take time to thank their patients
Photos by Bonnie Wong

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