By Annie Robinson
I have experienced the powerful effect stories have in healing as both a patient and as a caregiver in the role of a full-spectrum doula, which involves supporting women through abortion, miscarriage, and fetal loss. As a graduate of the Narrative Medicine master's program at Columbia University, my driving mission in life is to elicit, honor, and attend to stories.
I am the Assistant Director of the Center for Narrative Practice, which provides people with deep critical training in how stories work and trains them to apply this knowledge to everyday life by using narrative practice, creative arts, and the study of story. I also curate an oral narrative project called “Inside Stories: Medical Student Experiences”, for which I interview medical students about their experiences in medical school with the intention to provide a platform for their own person healing, self-realization and empowerment through the sharing and receiving of personal stories.
I am honored to serve as Program Officer for Health Story Collaborative. As such, I conduct interviews, edit audio stories, and write a blog posts that profile remarkable individuals committed to honoring and making use of stories in health care. If you or someone you know might be interested in being interviewed, please contact me at email@example.com.
For my first piece, I spoke with Dr. Sayantani DasGupta, a former professor of mine devoted to raising awareness in her students and in society about how to approach and honor illness narratives, and the intersections between narrative, health, and social justice.
Stories as Social Justice: An Interview with Sayantani DasGupta
“Stories are not the end goal, they’re not a treasure we dig up, they’re not a simple repository of facts, but rather, they’re a process. And listening to them is an act of social justice.”
- Dr. Sayantani DasGupta
Anyone who considers stories as central to healing swoons when listening to Dr. Sayantani DasGupta. I certainly did the first time I heard her speak, as my professor in an “Illness Narratives” class I took in Fall 2012 as a graduate student in Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. Sayantani’s passion for the power of story in medicine - which twinkles in her tone of voice and glitters in her eyes - is infectious.
Sayantani trained in pediatrics and earned a Master of Public Health, and now devotes her time to being a professor, writer, speaker, feminist, and mother. One of the things that most excites Sayantani is thinking about how gender, race, class, and other social factors influence how we tell the stories of our bodies.
In a recent conversation we had, she expressed concern that physicians tend to see stories as just “nice” instead of essential: “Physicians sometimes think, ‘Well, okay, that’s nice, but is it really necessary?’"
“Yes!” she insists. Through their stories, patients become contextualized in the wider system to which they belong. As Sayantani puts it, patients “are both a unique individual in this universe, and they are also not alone. They’re situated in a family, in a culture, in a community, in a social system, in a political system, in a labor system.” By listening to stories, physicians come to appreciate their patients as more than just parts and isolated disease carriers; they can see how the health of individuals is shaped by matters of social justice.
And Sayantani believes that when physicians hear patients’ stories, they are not only equipped to offer better care, but they are able to make major changes in healthcare: "The greatest potential for narrative work in healthcare is the ability of renewed attention to story to illuminate structural injustices in medicine as a profession, and healthcare as a system.”
She advises physicians to consider how "broader issues they’re thinking about, like health access, continuity of care, accurate diagnosis of treatment, long-term follow-up, are connected to narrative. If we simply think of narrative as something that feels good and is nice...then we rob it of its real power.”
It’s not only important that physicians listen to patients’ stories, it’s important how they listen. Sayantani believes that in order to provide the best healthcare, physicians must first engage in honest self-examination.
They can ask themselves: “What am I bringing to the table? What are my prejudices and expectations? What do I think about this person? Is it that they remind me of my Aunt Millie? Do I really hear their story well? Or do they frighten me and I don’t hear their story well?”
She also encourages physicians to listen with a sense of their own limitations, something she calls “narrative humility” - that we can approach stories without the assumption that we're going to always necessarily "get" all of it:
“The folks we take care of are not necessarily going to be just like us - they are very likely not going to be like us - and their stories are not something that we can become necessarily competent about.”
A medical student Sayantani once taught who had Multiple Sclerosis wrote a beautiful piece about her experience that captures the essence of narrative humility. The student wrote:
"As a patient, I urge every doctor to try and place him or herself in the patient’s shoes. Don’t stand by the foot of the bed and power over your patient. She feels small already. Take a minute, sit down, listen.”
She then offered a small piece of advice to medical practitioners reading her essay: “Try to understand. Realize that you will never understand. Try anyway.”
I shivered as Sayantani recounted these words, slowly and with reverence, and nodded in fervent agreement when she told me why she felt so moved by this simple but poignant piece:
“She’s talking about the practicalities of how to listen, but also about the inequality inherent in one person being ill, vulnerable, naked, and frightened, and the other being full of knowledge. It really brings home the social justice role and the healing role of storytelling in our work. Yes, we try to put ourselves in our patient’s shoes, but we have to be conscious of power. We also have to be conscious of what we bring to the table.”
The words echoed in our conversation, and still do in my heart:
"Try to understand. Realize that you will never understand. Try anyway.”
More about Sayantani:
Sayantani DasGupta originally trained in pediatrics and public health at Johns Hopkins University, and now serves as a core faculty member of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She also teaches in the Health Advocacy program at Sarah Lawrence College. In addition to being a prolific writer, she is a nationally recognized speaker on issues of gender, race, storytelling, and medical education. At Columbia, one of the classes she teaches is a Narrative, Health and Social Justice seminar, and she co-chairs a faculty seminar of the same name.