Historian and author Brandy Schillace, PhD, is Editor for Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose, Research Associate and Public Engagement at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, as well as Managing Editor of the medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.
If you follow this blog, you know that our primary focus has been health and humanities, the intersection of medicine and social and cultural studies. But today, half the country feels they have swallowed a bitter pill. The other half feel that they’ve been vindicated, perhaps, but all can agree that this has been the most unhealthy election cycle in living memory. I found myself listening to the results in the wee hours, and then reflecting on what this might mean, not only for our nation, but also for our small communities and families. I want to provide here some encouragement, some insight, and we as a forum want to give our readers a sense of solidarity–for we are with you.
To those who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton, I say this. The grief you feel is real and you have a right to it. As with any loss, the anger and shock are feelings that we must work through. But let’s remember that despair and hope are not feelings, but choices. We must work against despair, even at our darkest moments, because despair is paralyzing. We must choose hope, because hope cannot stand without us. But also, while you mourn the loss of a dream, be assured: this was still a historic moment. You voted for the first Continue reading “Moving on from Election 2016”→
It has been a difficult year. But for some, this year’s seeming upsurge of violence represents only the now-visible crest over a lifetime of submerged struggle and frustration against systemic abuse. History tells a different tale. We are not experiencing a new and dangerous age; No, for there remains a long record of racism, lynch mobs, violence against women, and murder of people professing different faith or gender orientation than those with power and motivation to silence them. In the face of terror–in light of Orlando, of Dallas, of Nice, of Syria, of Turkey, and of tragedies in our own towns and cities–we are apt to feel helpless and overwhelmed. We may be tempted to silence, to the feeling that nothing we say will matter. This is true of victims, who feel their words go no where. This is also true of allies and of those whose race or gender keeps them safe (or safer) from the abuses they witness. What could I possibly have to say? We may think, in shame, or in anger, that silence is all we have…
Today’s Friday Fiction features the work of Sharon Dempsey, a journalist and author who facilitates writing workshops for those affected by illness. In her work today, she shares how writing becomes an act of patient empowerment, fiction serving as a voice and a means of controlling and absorbing the chaos of illness.
medhum Fiction|Guest Post By Sharon Dempsey
Medicine, in essence, is a transaction of stories. The patient’s telling of symptoms, the interpretation of evidence and investigation on the part of medic, is the basis of the diagnosis process.
To seek expression out of illness is a natural reaction, yet the power of story is not fully harnessed in medicine. Health and disease are concerned with life and death, and are closely connected to the physical, social, psychological and spiritual nature of humans. So often we have focused on cure over care. Narrative medicine seeks to redress this imbalance.
My personal interest lies in the the relationship between story and medicine: to look at how we use narrative in illness and to how we might use creative writing and literature as an effective means of communicating, to help voice the concerns of the patient, and to help the physician to understand the impact of lived experience of illness. When patients take ownership of their illness narrative and are active in seeking the information they need, they gain greater insight into how they can best make decisions regarding their treatment. In short, to understand and speak about their illness experience is to be empowered in the face of illness and mortality. Research has shown that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events can be beneficial for both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical settings. To tell a story is a most human transaction.
My awareness of this relationship between literature and writing to illness and medicine came through personal experience: in caring for my son Owen who was diagnosed with an ependymoma brain tumor at the age of two. Despite surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Owen died when he was six. I found solace in writing and reading. My experience of grief and bereavement led me to see a direct correlation between my ability to cope with what I was reading and how I was able to express my grief through writing.
Part of my work now, twelve years after Owen’s death, involves designing and facilitating therapeutic creative writing workshops for patients affected by cancer. Delivering the workshops has reaffirmed my belief that writing and reading literature generates a sense of well-being and helps the participants to deal with the emotional repercussions of cancer.
Being part of a creative writing group has many benefits. Through writing, participants can take control of their illness and process the changes that the illness and treatment has made to their lives. This is what the illness narrative is about: the writer can find expression for emotions and feelings, and this in turn allows them to feel validated, to be understood and to gain self awareness, while providing a platform to share with other like-minded people.
Gary Hunter, a participant of our workshops, states that they enable him, “to articulate feelings that might otherwise remain unexpressed”–
“In a way, writing gives me back a modicum of control over my situation and helps me deal with my diagnosis and the effects of living with cancer. I have a creative outlet for my frustration, uncertainty and anger,” he said.
After a workshop, Gary felt “a sense of achievement, especially when [his] work has been enjoyed and praised”; Moreover, the workshops provided him “an excellent and welcome forum for expressing one’s feelings and concerns in a secure, confidential and non-judgmental environment, in the company of people who understand the cancer experience.” Through his fiction and memoir writing, Gary has explored cancer’s impact on relationships, self-image, faith and even the loss of faith. Other participants have shared that the workshops offer healing, empathy, release, inspiration, validation and empowerment.
The monthly workshops that I facilitate are run by a charity called Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, and provide an opportunity to reflect on personal experience in a safe, supportive environment. We state that no previous writing experience is required, and the workshops are open to relatives and carers of those affected by cancer, too. Illness never affects only the patient, even though illness narrative is often the expression of the patient’s lived experience of illness. Through communicating illness, the patient (and their families and perhaps even their doctors) gains a sense of control, finds comfort in expression and consolation in being heard. This sense of seeking clarity and meaning through writing is present in my creative writing workshops, even though cancer is not the primary focus of our writing. We have explored memoir, flash fiction, poetry, script writing, journal writing, and nature writing and we are about to embark on a genre series starting with crime writing. The act of creating and writing is more important than the subject, yet themes and set exercises provide a structure to conduct the writing. Our work is a means to an end in itself – our creative self- expression. Yet I can see there is much to be gained for physicians and carers, too, as they witness the power of storytelling in action.
As writers, the patients can bring order to their world. They can employ creativity, punctuation, grammar, structure and format to a world of confusion, emotional turmoil and often sadness. Twelve years after my son’s death, I still write for him and about him. It’s my treatment. In facilitating and participating workshops, I have recognized the value of humanizing the medical experience, and honoring the shared story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Sharon Dempsey is a journalist, health writer and creative writing facilitator based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Follow @svjdempz
On today’s MedHum Monday, we present a post from the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. The original post (by Catherine Osborn) first appeared as part of the #MuseumWeek posts, and it demonstrates beautifully the importance of history and other humanities to the study of medicine. We provide part of this work here, but see the site for brilliant images that further illustrate the medhum intersection.
It’s not uncommon for the Dittrick Medical History Center to be referred to a bit like a cabinet of curiosities, a niche museum, or perhaps more kindly, a “hidden treasure.” Although we’ve always worked to make collections accessible and major public engagement efforts are underway, we still often have to make the case for the (sometimes not so) implicit question “Why should I care about medical history?”
The answer tends to go a little like this:
Medical history is the history of how we come into the world. Our Re-conceiving Birth gallery is not only about doctors, nurses, and midwives — it examines the experiences of women and babies from the 18th century to the 1940s. Beyond the particular questions of labor position, pregnancy diet, and types of forceps, this gallery calls visitors’ attention to larger, still pertinent questions: Is birth a normal or pathological event? Who’s experiences and knowledge are important during labor? Should birth hurt? How are difficult decisions made when both the mother and infant are at risk?
By framing these questions through history, we hope to add to modern debates that these are not new concerns and that “traditional” approaches are not singular or homogenous.
Medical history is the history of how we change and respond to our environments. Humans have faced a range of emerging health concerns through travel to new places, movement into cities, changing diets, and exposure to industrial hazards. Many of the museum’s exhibits examine both the impact of these shifts, such as crowded city-dwelling facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases, and how we respond to these novel health environments. For example, Cleveland was racked by a deadly and disfiguring smallpox epidemic in 1901 and 1902, which was halted through a coordination of efforts to develop and widely distribute a safe vaccine.
These stories speak to the dynamic relationship between humans and their environment and cautions against assumptions that medical progress has eliminated any risk of new health challenges… [read more]