September Recap – Creation Myths as Metaphor for Mundane Magic

By Elizabeth Lahti

Katy Liljeholm skillfully led the workshop, Creation Myths as Metaphor for Mundane Magic. Ms. Liljeholm is a former Artistic Director of Well Arts and current oral historian for palliative care patients at Legacy Health Services. She immediately brought the group together and engaged us with her warm presence. She began the hands on workshop with a refresher on different types of myths, placing an emphasis on creation myths. She reminded us of what Joseph Campbell once said about myth: the narrator, the artist, the one thinking up the story, is in a field that is not covered by our own knowledge.

This reminded me of how Susan Sontag opens her book Illness as Metaphor. She write that we all hold dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Often when one arrives in the kingdom of the sick, they don’t have a vocabulary or a map of what that particular landscape looks like. In the workshop, Ms. Liljeholm invited us to stretch our imagination muscles in order to think, write, and share about other worlds with other rules.

Ms. Liljeholm provided the group with three printed myths. We read them aloud, letting the characters, worlds, deeds, and transformations come alive in the room. Each was very different. Together we discussed what stood out to each of us and why. For some a myth was violent, while for others it was hopeful. For some a myth was magic, while for others it was a true representation of life in our world. Some of us were more attached to one myth than the others. Through the act of closely reading different texts together, our small group undulated over the words and worlds as if riding a wave in the same boat. We experienced the texts in community, and in the process acknowledged and appreciated different perspectives.  

Then it was time to write. Ms. Liljeholm provided us with a long list of prompts. Here are a few examples.

  • Lured to a new part of the forest while on a hunt or walk. Maybe by an animal.
  • Bring something impressive to a parent to get crowned as a monarch.
  • Climb a mountain to find a new realm at the top.
  • Get kidnapped by a magician or a witch.
  • Wake up with your hair gone.
  • Be tempted by something you should not don.
  • Steal fire.

At first I struggled with the task. I don’t think of myself as a myth writer, or someone who creates worlds that don’t exist. So I jotted down ideas, wishes, words, and sketches. When I finally got going, my sentences flowed and I found my character walking through a dark hallway in a forgotten part of a house. She finds a brightly colored coat and when she places it over her shoulders a new world springs into being.

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Our room in the Lucky Lab was quiet except for pens and pencils scratching paper. The time went by quickly. When the group stopped collectively writing, Ms. Liljeholm invited us to share our myths with the group. I decided to sit back and listen to others. Wow. It is amazing what people can imagine, create, and get down on paper in 15 minutes. Each myth that was read aloud brought me into another world. In one, a city was divided into different colored sectors and resources were running out. In another, robots destroyed Portland but one benevolent robot became a tool for children in physical therapy. In another world, small animals could talk but also Google for answers. The worlds that people created in order to make sense of a problem were imaginative but concrete, mythical but grounded in reality.

One myth stood out to me. It was the story of a beautiful young woman with long, full, blond hair. You know the kind, fairy tail princess hair. One day she wakes to find her hair is gone. With permission, I excerpt part of the myth here.

“One day when Drusilla rose with the sun to draw water for her bath, she saw reflected in the stream that she was completely bald. Her hands flew to her head, smooth as an egg and just as bare.

In disbelief, she ran to the neighboring farm but the boys playing with sticks in the tall grass barely acknowledged her and their mother scarcely looked up from hoeing a row in the garden.  Without her glorious locks, it was as though Drusilla was invisible, except that she knew that wasn’t true. Others revealed that they saw her by the quick, furtive aversion of their eyes. She was still here, but no longer a joy to be seen. She was a thing to be ignored, avoided.”

Immediately this story reminded me of patients who lose their hair during medical treatment. When prompted the author said that wasn’t her intent. The seed for this myth was planted in something else. To me this exemplifies the beauty of writing and sharing in community. Her myth creation meant something entirely different to me than it meant to her. And the same could probably be said for others around the table.

Distraught by the loss of her hair and her subsequent invisibility, Drusilla digs a hole and gets in. The natural world overtakes her, and soon she becomes an egg covered with soil, vines, and flowers.

“A little girl chanced upon the wondrous egg under its greenery, her attention captured by the faint sound of tiny cracks in the shell underneath.  As she watched in wonder, the shells and the vines split apart to reveal a shiny black raven. The girl stood agape as it tested its broad wings in the breeze and then looked her straight in the eye with a stare that knew everything she would ever do and be. The raven tilted her head affectionately, nodded, and flew away to the top of a very tall tree on a very big mountain. The little girl ran to tell everyone in the village and although no one believed her, she never forgot.  She became a wise woman, highly sought after for comfort and advice.”

I invite you think about what you see, hear, and feel in the final paragraph of this myth. And I invite you to think and write about your own worlds with no rules. I hope you join us on the 3rd Tuesday of every month at the Hawthorne Lucky Lab Brew Pub for the NWNMC Community of Practice. All are welcome.

 

Community of Practice – August Recap!

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Writing Through Life Transitions:  Reflections on August Community of Practice

By Daena Goldsmith

When we go through changes in the external situations of our lives, we also experience a process of internal transition as we come to terms with what change means for who we are and our place in the world.  The world around us often focuses on the new beginning that comes with change but we also need to acknowledge what is ending and we are likely to find ourselves spending some time in a “neutral zone”—a time when the old has gone but the new isn’t yet fully operational.

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This month Aryn Bartley introduced us to William Bridge’s Life Transition Model and led us through a workshop on how to write our way through the endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings of life transitions.  Aryn teaches English at Lane Community College and drove up the smoke-filled I-5 corridor to lead our small group as we gathered at the Lucky Lab Hawthorne Brew Pub this past Tuesday, August 21.

We started by making individual lists of some life transitions we’ve experienced—those happening now as well as recent or long ago transitions.  Then we selected one and wrote about “My most vivid memory from this transition” or something “I wish I had known.” We continued to write about transitions from different angles and in different genres (a letter, a detailed sensory description).  Our group wrote and shared about a variety of life transitions involving relationships, careers, chronic illness, and loss. We noticed that even transitions we desire can be challenging and we aren’t always supported in expressing the loss that comes with any kind of change.

Aryn shared with us Mary Oliver’s poem, In Blackwater Woods.  The poem begins with changes in the natural world and then concludes with this advice about how “to live in this world”:

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and when the time comes to let it go,

let it go.

We discussed how difficult and how necessary it is to hold something closely, deeply and let it go, and the challenge of discerning when “the time” has come.  This workshop helped us explore how writing can be a way of engaging with these processes.

Several of us plan to continue the writing we started in this workshop and Aryn concluded by giving us  exercises we could try on our own, including writing a character sketch of ourselves before, during, or after a life transition; taking lines from Oliver’s poem as writing prompts; and designing a personal ritual to mark an ending or new beginning.

Thank you to Aryn and my fellow participants for this evening!  The workshop captured many of the elements that I appreciate in our community of practice:  opportunities to write, productive prompts and exercises, active listening, and thoughtful discussion.  I hope you will join us in September for our next gathering!

 

Reflections on July’s Community of Practice

by Rebecca Harrison
How often in our busy lives do we find we are unable to get to the essence of what we really need to ponder and care for in ourselves?
With three simple questions “How are you feeling right now?”, “What is that about?” and “What do you want?”,  I found I could easily immerse myself into the “micro moment” of what was happening inside of me. There is so much noise in our heads that at times we fail to really communicate what we actually care about. This is so often shrouded in the social graces of conversation and small talk.
This exercise had me and my workshop partner, who started in divergent places, immediately pulling into the essence of what mattered to each of us in the moment and a closer understanding of each other. Like a circular tornado we came to meet in the middle and had a shared sense of common understanding. The questions were pillars of structure as we rotated back and forth through those three questions. In that circular exchange we distilled our words to the essence of our current states.
Next, the pair-share question posed “What cross roads are you at in your life?”  By then,  I was ripe to  listen “radically.” What I noticed, being in full listening mode; is that I could simply be, relax, take in and absorb. Soon into the conversation, I noticed that the silence could be awkward, yet it beckoned my partner to go on and share more without me interrupting, agreeing, relating or going on about my thoughts, which could be distracting to what she needed. So important is that the  hardest and most painful part of sharing is often saved at the end of the conversation, which if I had interrupted with my comments we might never have gotten there. It reminds me of “the hand on the door knob” questions a patient might finally reveal as the provider is walking out of the room. “Why didn’t you tell me this from the beginning of our time?” you might ask. Yet, it’s understandable, because we are often afraid to be vulnerable, to burden, or at times to share the words that bring forth the deeper emotions and fears. This got me thinking, what if we lead with the hardest part-the part we can’t even dream to share upfront? How would that shape our communications differently?
My workshop partner and I discovered our cross roads are not actually forks in the road, but more like woven fabric or a lattice of connections in our life. We are on a journey to find our truest selves every step of the way in life. We are always at cross roads. Our group spanned ages of 15-70’s years, yet we all have cross roads being woven into that fabric. The unknown or uncertain future is often the hardest part to share. It seems to me, we are often looking toward our new skin and shedding the old. We are always shedding, though sometimes it’s more difficult to let go of old skin, because there is a grief in that. And yet, in grieving there is also catharsis.
Sharing my story I could see I could be present and safe and understood quickly. It was personal, yet I could say it out loud. Some parts of my narrative I had never said out loud in that way. I saw I had a deeper understanding of myself than I thought I had.  From that space I could reflect and design a care plan for me, a small, important promise to myself – a Mantra of sorts. I felt refreshed and empowered by this experience of radical listening and closer to the truth by getting to the heart of it.
This all happened in under two hours! Thank you Niki Steckler!
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Community of Practice – June Recap!

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Northwest Narrative Medicine’s June Community of Practice was led by Cassandra Sagan, a Portland Interplay instructor. This workshop was joy filled and thoughtful.
Nine of us “played” with Interplay forms and ex-forms around the theme of Narrative Medicine. Through vocalization, movement and dance we explored a theory about the basic cellular and body movements and then worked together in pairs. Creating stories around made up medical words brought lots of laughter.
Getting out of our chairs and moving around the room in forms and shapes freed and energized our creative juices.  In the middle of the workshop, one participant exclaimed: “I feel such joy!”
After the movement exercises, we listed our joys to each other in pairs, and then something we each felt a burden for. However; this was softened with the invocation of fruit names rather than real personal details. (Try it! It works!)
Our last assignment was a 20 minute write, in which we were challenged to find a thread or connection of joy even in the midst of our personal burden. We ended by sharing what we discovered through our writing, in a way that maintained our intimately creative and safe community.

Don’t miss our next Community of Practice on July 17th.  Niki Steckler will facilitate Listening and Story Sharing as Practices for Radical Self-Care. Learn more!

Community of Practice – May Recap!

fullsizeoutput_4089Twenty-one people gathered Tuesday at the Lucky Lab Brew Pub for the inaugural Northwest Narrative Medicine Community of Practice. The environment was upbeat and casual and the participants were highly engaged. Gathered around a large table, facilitator Cara Olexa led the group in writing exercises, sharing, discussions and readings exploring the concept of “Fiction as a Route to Truth”. Participants left with two samples of personal writing, and a better understanding of the ways both fiction and non-fiction can highlight the truth of a story.

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Several participants expressed their pleasure at having the time to write, share, reflect and be present with each other and their stories. Cara, the evening’s facilitator, noted that “the willingness and desire for this in the community is great enough to move people to come to a workshop they might’ve only seen advertised in an email or on Facebook!”

Won’t you join us?

Our next meeting is Tuesday, June 19th, from 6-8 PM, where Cassandra Sagan will guide us on the interplay of narrative medicine.  Community of Practice events are free and no RSVP is required. Food and drink is available for purchase at the venue.

Learn more about the Community of Practice

Visit the Facebook Event Page

Join the Patient Revolution – An Empowering Evening with Victor Montori

Victor Montori, founder of Patient Revolution, led a empowering discussion on Tuesday evening, reading excerpts from him book Why We Revolt: A patient revolution for careful and kind care.

Clinicians, physicians and patients enjoyed his various and impassioned readings and discussions around our “industrial medicine” system from chapters titled: Blur, Greed, Elegance, Solidarity and even Love.  

Montori startlingly rescues the language of patient care from business terms and phrases to the language of true compassionate patient care and solidarity. Human being caring for human being.

“Revolution means turning away,” Montori argued, and revolutions begins with common people rising up, not necessarily a leader. He envisions a movement than transports us from our current Industrial Health Care system to a Kind and Caring Healthcare system. “Create an alternative imagination for the future!”

You can buy the book—and share your story—at patientrevolution.org

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Victor Montori, MD, MSc (Lima, 1970), is a professor of medicine, a highly cited researcher, and a diabetes doctor at Mayo Clinic (U.S.). In 2016, Victor founded The Patient Revolution, a nonprofit organization to translate into action the ideas proposed in his book, Why We Revolt. Proceeds from Why We Revolt will support its mission.

 

Narrative Medicine Writer’s Retreat

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With busy Portland behind them, nine writers gathered in Mt. Hood-Parkdale, Oregon on Sunday, December 10th for a writer’s retreat.

With Narrative Medicine as the focus, participants spent the day writing, sharing, and discussing. The day began with a rich discussion after reading a short story and a pair of poems. Participants commented that it was nice to go back and forth between reading/discussing and writing independently. They found value in keeping the theme of narrative medicine in their consciousness, yet enjoyed the freedom to write spontaneously or work on longer projects.

Everyone enjoyed a delicious catered lunch by a local Mexican restaurant, then they soaked up some unstructured time in the afternoon. Participants could choose from a tool box of various writing activities. Some writers rambled up and down forest trails, some sat at the kitchen table working on longer pieces, and some chose to write with the provided prompts, or even nap on the couch. A couple of writers asked for a longer unstructured time next time, so that they could engage in more of the activity offerings.

Old acquaintances were strengthened, and new friendships were built around narrative medicine. The day ended with a formal activity of writing a French Pantoum. Finally everyone bundled up, departed with well wishes and hopes of getting together again.

Elizabeth and April look forward to providing future offerings of writing together with Narrative Medicine at its heart.


Comments by participants

“Really, really appreciate the work that Elizabeth & April are doing. I love that you are working on events both large and intimate. In this case, I love that you are directly providing a space, an opportunity and encouragement to create!“

“The NW Narrative Medicine writing retreat was worth every penny! Set in a beautiful location a short drive from Portland, it was an excellent balance of structured and unstructured time. The retreat offered an excellent range of formal and informal writing opportunities. I left the retreat with two new pieces almost complete, a couple of new tools, and a love for the landscape around Parkdale. In addition, Elizabeth and April made everything seem easy. They are welcoming, encouraging and supportive. Meeting the other attendees was a pleasure — it’s a rarity to meet other good-hearted and talented people writing about the same things I like to write about. Looking forward to the next retreat!”

Guest Blogger: Brianna Barrett

When That Illness From Your 20’s Becomes a Lifelong Artistic Mission

Cancer survivor Brianna Barrett writes “After This Episode,” a short play about a young adult cancer survivor, to be played by a fellow cancer survivor at the NW Narrative Medicine Conference.

I want to change the way people think. Whether it’s books, movies, theater, music, or any other medium, the arts hold incredible power to shape societal views. There are a lot of stories we’ve heard before. If you’re looking for it, you’ll notice there are certain types of characters we see often enough that they become part of our accepted cultural narrative. In my own writing, it’s important to me to focus on the stories or characters that I don’t feel are necessarily getting a fair shake in mainstream media.

How I Got Here

I was diagnosed with cancer in my early 20s. One of the many things a person suddenly becomes aware of when diagnosed with cancer is how disappointingly few relatable depictions of the young adult cancer experience can be found in existing media. Cancer patients are often seen as fragile, sage-like characters who die leaving friends and family with some valuable life lessons. I’ll just say it: that doesn’t feel so warm and fuzzy when you’re the one who’s sick.

Bizarrely, depictions of young people who have actually lived though cancer and are now getting their lives back together are quite rare. As a person fighting cancer pretty early in life, you look at the stories out there and you start to feel like there aren’t a lot of blueprints for what you are supposed to do with your life after you get through treatment.

The long-lasting effects of being a survivor (physically, emotionally, financially) are often-overlooked subjects that are rich with the kind of drama perfectly well suited to theater or film. Not only that, but in not telling these stories we are overlooking a large and growing population of young people who share this experience. When we talk about diversity, and bringing more diverse perspectives into the world of arts and entertainment, there is a conversation to be had about how we depict people with chronic illnesses or people who might be differently abled. I’m not talking about the “look how hard some people have it” angle that is inspiring to people who don’t have to deal with the same problems. I’m talking about the stories we can all relate to: our friends who are hilarious and messy and complicated and face uncertainty and insecurity and occasional moments of levity like everyone does.

Hitting Close to Home

Both personally and professionally, I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to connect with a lot of young adult cancer survivors and hear a lot of important personal stories. This play was born out of dozens of intimate, thoughtful conversations I’ve had with fellow survivors from across the country. While the story is fictional, it’s certainly also informed the dynamics I noticed in my own life once I had enough distance to be able to reflect on everything I’d been through. Whether you personally are sick, or a friend is sick, or a family member is sick, everyone involved in a medical crisis is dealing with an inherently stressful situation and everyone copes with stress in their own ways. Not all of those ways match up and that can lead to friction or misunderstandings that can be hard to address. This is one of the themes I wanted to explore in writing this piece.

It is with all of the gratitude and admiration in the world that I get to say I’m collaborating on this project with someone who is almost eerily well-qualified for the job of portraying a cancer patient in a play written by a former cancer patient. Rae, the young cancer survivor in my play, will be played by Brianne Whitacre – a remarkably talented and delightfully uninhibited actress from Portland who actually lived in a patient housing apartment while receiving treatment for cancer in her 20s, much like the character she portrays in this play. We have these amazing moments in rehearsal where she’s all, “this is how I remember always having to put on my shoes while I was in treatment,” and it really adds this whole other layer of subtext to the show. The insight and honesty she is able to bring to this role is reason enough to register for the conference – not to mention the phenomenal work of Theresa Park (who plays her long-suffering older sister) and Melanie Meijer (who plays her cheery childhood best friend). I’m thrilled to have such a capable, compassionate group of women tackling this project with so much energy and heart. It will be a very special, very unique performance and you don’t want to miss it.

Guest Blogger: StoryCorps + OHSU

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 7.50.31 PMStoryCorps Legacy: Through the cancer journey with Josh

You’ve likely heard the compelling conversations produced by StoryCorps, the national nonprofit organization whose mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs. But did you know that StoryCorps has now partnered with OHSU to bring to life the stories of OHSU patients, caregivers, healthcare professionals, and volunteers?

During this year’s NWNM conference, Jessi Broberg and T Timbreza, employees in the OHSU Patient Experience department, will facilitate a workshop focusing on the healing power of storytelling through the mission of StoryCorps Legacy and their partnership with local and national healthcare organizations.

In addition, two StoryCorps recording sessions will be held during the conference. If you’re registered for the conference and might be interested in recording a StoryCorps interview on October 21 or 22, please send an email to nwnmc.pdx@gmail.com.

Below are a few words from Jessi and T.:

Grief. Elation. Surprise. Frustration. Optimism. Myriad emotions fill the hearts of those whose lives intersect with healthcare. Each of those individuals – patients, loved ones, care providers, and researchers alike – has a story to tell and the OHSU partnership with StoryCorps Legacy is an opportunity to do just that. Participating gives people the opportunity to reflect, in an open and safe space, on the things that are meaningful to them. It allows individuals like Josh Brenneman and his mom, April, to capture and preserve some of their experiences in an audio recording.

The youngest of five children, Josh was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma in 2004 at the age of four.  Now 17, he and his mom sat down and discussed this diagnosis and the impact it had on their lives and the community that rallied beside them. Listen to their story here.

This edited story is an example of the type of work we’re privileged to do at OHSU. We have the honor of being facilitators of and bearing witness to the powerful stories told during the 40-minute interviews. We believe in creating space for the experience of others, and that sharing stories that inspire and connect us are some of the greatest gifts we can give.

We hope you’ll join us during the conference as we share learnings and challenges in listening for the multiple stories within the audio recording, understanding the process of honoring the integrity of the story, and identifying the components that tell the most impactful story possible.

Guest Blogger: Marcy Cottrell Houle

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

Dear Friends:

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Keynote Speaker: Marcy Houle

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. 

Warmest wishes,

Marcy