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On Health: Storytelling for health

By Vicki Rackner, M.D.

Stories are powerful. How many times have you heard a child beg, "Tell me a story." Scientists say we are wired to learn through stories. In fact, the first three polysyllabic words your child spoke are most likely Mommy, Daddy and story.

Have you ever wondered: "Do I have a story for a Chicken Soup book?" My answer, based on years of experience with thousands of patients, is a resounding "Yes!" Not only do you have your own unique and fascinating story, the stories you tell yourself and others play an important role in your health and health care.

Story-telling is an important activity when you see your doctor. Your doctor's question "How do you feel?" is your doctor's way of saying, "Tell me your story." More than 80 percent of the time, your doctor is able to diagnose your medical condition just by listening to your story.

You and your doctor have different ways of understanding your story. That's because you and your doctor look at your story with different perspectives.

Imagine how different Little Red Riding Hood would be if told by the grandmother or the wolf.

For example, you may go to the doctor with episodes of abdominal pain and bloating. You never know if it will be a good day. Some days you stay home from work with cramping. In your experience, you have two pains -- the abdominal symptoms and the limitation on your activities.

Your doctor's desired goal, which you share, is to arrive at a diagnosis and offer a cure. If you have gallstones or an ulcer, you can be cured, and both you and your doctor are gratified to see an end to the unpleasant symptoms.

In that case the story you tell and the story your doctor tells are much the same.

Doctors don't always have the answer. You may undergo an exhaustive series of tests to learn that you do not have a "serious medical condition." Your doctor tells you that you have "irritable bowel syndrome" a condition relatively poorly understood that is not cured, but rather managed.

When your doctor cannot cure you, it can feel like your doctor is telling you that your pain is not real. It's like a parent saying to a child, "You can't be hungry. You just ate an hour ago." You might even feel like your doctor has lost interest in working with you because you cannot be "fixed."

This is when your story becomes even more important. Even if your doctor can't cure you, your doctor can listen to you and offer ideas how to enhance the quality of your life. You still want to know your doctor cares and will be there to minimize the suffering in your life. Knowing that you're not going through this alone offers tremendous healing.

You can use your story as a way of opening the caring relationship you want.

Here are a few ideas: Know your story. You may know the doctor's version of your story. "I have the following medical conditions that have been treated byŠ." While this is an important version, I encourage you to tell you own version of your story.

What is your experience of living with this medical condition? What challenges have you faced and what have you learned as a result of going through it? You may have never done this before. You can either record it in a journal or tell it to a friend. Some say healing means accepting the past as it was, not needing to change it. I have seen healing at the bedside of the dying.

Ask for time. Telling your story takes time. Ask for it. When you call to make the appointment ask "How do I schedule a half-hour appointment?" Offer to pay for time your insurance company will not cover.

Understand that you and your doctor tell different stories. Your doctor wants to arrive at a diagnosis and cure. You want to experience the best quality you can. When you see the doctor, you may just tell your story a brief time before your doctor takes over to identify the doctor threads. You can say, "I would like just three minutes to tell my story my way, then we can review it your way."

Tell your doctor how you're feeling. Your doctor may understand how the gastro-intestinal system works, but you are the expert on what you feel.

Your feelings convey information that is as important as a lab test or x-ray result. If your doctor doesn't understand how important something is to you, speak up! If you tell your doctor about the nausea with your new mediation and your doctor brushes it off and moves on to the next topic, say, "For me nausea isn't just a little annoyance. It's a big deal. Are there other medications that will work?"

Recognize the healing power of having someone listen to your story. Have you ever had the experience of listening to someone, not saying a word, and hearing the other person say, "Thanks I feel so much better."

The Chicken Soup stories share the theme of seeing the blessings where one just saw the curse. Pain and illness are part of the human condition. You make choices that determine if pain will lead to suffering. When you're sick, your goal is to restore the quality of your life. You, not your doctor know what that means for you. After all, you're the one living your story.

Vicki Rackner, M.D., is president of Medical Bridges and author of the Personal Health Journal and the upcoming book "Bouncing Back." She can be reached at

DrRacker@MedicalBridges.comor 425-451-3777.

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