Marcy Cottrell Houle is a professional wildlife biologist, national speaker, and award-winning author of four books. Her most recent book is The Gift of Caring. Houle will be a keynote speaker at the NW Narrative Medicine Conference, October 20-22, 2017.
A LETTER TO THOSE ATTENDING THE NW NARRATIVE MEDICINE CONFERENCE
I am looking forward to meeting you on Oct. 21 when you attend the NW Narrative Medicine Conference! Its theme is exciting and new, and will equip us all to become effective messengers on a very important mission: improving the quality of life for our loved ones, for ourselves, and for those whose care is entrusted to us.
So how does “narrative” do that?
Narratives can be expressed in all sorts of ways. Through art, music, words. As an author, of course, I love words. I see how even the simplest words, strung together, can build up images that have potency and can direct us into action.
For example, realtors have a phrase they routinely refer to. Three words are used to promote prime real-estate: “Location. Location. Location.”
I offer that there are three words that doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, patients, caregivers, and families could use as a guide in providing exceptional health care: “Communication. Communication. Communication.”
Unfortunately, as many of us know, that often is not the case.
Rather, what happens in discussions among providers and patients is this: Both sides of the health care equation are speaking different languages – but with no interpreter. This “great divide” in dialogue often leaves patients and families frustrated and confused, and their busy, harried providers at a loss to understand why their patients don’t get what they’re saying!
How are we to bridge this fissure in today’s too-often fragmented health care delivery system? How can earnest providers give the kind of quality care they want to, and patients feel their needs and concerns are being heard?
Well, having lived through this scenario the hard way – seeing my wonderful aging parents fall through the cracks of the health care system over and over, and not knowing how to help them – I finally found something that worked. I didn’t learn it all at once. And a lot of it only happened after my parents had passed away. But the lessons I discovered are powerful and have made a great difference in my life and that of many others.
I learned the best way to find a connection between us is to slip into each other’s shoes for a moment, and try to see life from another’s perspective.
The easiest and most vivid way to do that? Sharing our stories.
Moreover, when these stories can get into other people’s hearts and minds, then people are moved to action.
The result? These stories can make life better for others.
Sharing personal narratives has the power to improve quality of care by connecting physicians and providers and the families they care for by making inroads of understanding. Stories can help people not feel alone, and they can also inspire positive action.
The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents – and Ourselves – from the Perils of Modern Health Cares is the story I wrote after living through a 17 year journey of caring for my mother and father. It is the narrative of the struggle we endured to try to ease their pain when they were suffering as they aged. Through time, we saw health care at its lowest ebb … and also, at its best. Many times it was a battle – a battle that thousands upon thousands of families find themselves in, and not knowing where to turn. Many times, people just give up.
I’m here to say: Don’t give up. The Gift of Caring has another story running through it, too. Co-author, Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, MPH, MACP, and professor of medicine at OHSU, tells a story, not of despair, but of hope. As I learned, and we jointly explain, there is a different way to age! One of meaning, dignity, purpose, and greatly reduced suffering. This narrative tells of the strategies we can use – whether physicians, nurses, all kinds of providers, as well as seniors, families and caregivers. With the proper knowledge, as transmitted and actualized through stories, we have the opportunity to reduce much of the misery that older persons experience.
I know that. I have seen it. And the thrilling thing? From what we are hearing, these stories are affecting change. They are calling people to action. And I suspect that’s why many of you are coming to this innovative and important conference — because you want to see changes to the health care system, and to promote high quality of care, for our patients, our loved ones and ourselves. On some intrinsic level, you understand that personal narratives and telling stories is a powerful way to begin that action. They pull us in. They make us see another side to the story we may not have thought about before. Most of all, they make us connect, as human beings.
Isn’t that what it’s all about?
I know each of you is going to make a difference.