on May 19th, 2015 No Comments
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.