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Using the Power of Story to Improve Patient-Centred Care
"We started our visit with a simple request, tell me your story."Last fall I went through a painful and difficult emotional experience that left me with the knowledge that my only family member would not be able to help in the event that I am unable to give directions about medical treatment. This experience left me angry, disappointed, feeling betrayed and anxious. My emotional response to this event was so strong and within an hour I had a painful physical response that sent me to the ER.
Over the next several months my body continued to react to my emotional trauma. I suffered from fluctuating high/low body temperature, wandering pain, loss of voice, lack of appetite and severe insomnia. I knew that my physical response was linked to my emotional issues but it was very difficult to get my GP and NP to hear me when I attempted to explain this. The two specialists I saw were more understanding, but didn't know what to do. While they attempted to address my physical symptoms by asking the same questions over and over, they found nothing wrong. They did not explore the link to my emotional health, and unfortunately my GP was particularly dismissive when I brought it up.
Things came to a head on Christmas Day when I experienced a high fever and pounding headache. I sought help by calling 311 (nurse advice go to the ER) and contacted an on-call GP who told me to contact my regular GP. Neither of these pieces of advice were helpful and I decided that my only option was to self-medicate by taking strong pain killers I had been prescribed earlier. I knew this would not solve my health issues but felt that no one was taking my problem seriously.
My experience at Christmas, while upsetting, motivated me to get to the root of my problems. I booked a visit with my GP who arranged for a CT and surgical consultation. In the meantime, I decided to visit a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor. The first thing he did was listen to me. He heard me when I spoke about my emotional issues and concluded that emotional trauma was creating a physical response. One hour of acupuncture to rebalance my body energy triggered healing. Over a couple of days, the symptoms that had been plaguing me for weeks subsided and I felt physically fine. In addition, my anxiety was gone.
I do believe that the acupuncture helped but I think equally important was having someone listen to my story. I spoke to someone who was willing to entertain the idea that my emotional issues had caused severe physical symptoms. This recognition of the link between mind and body helped me to self- heal.
After my CT scan I went to see a surgeon. Like the TCM doctor this surgeon started our visit with a simple request, "tell me your story". He just looked in my eyes and let me speak for 20 uninterrupted minutes. He told me that I did not need surgery and also recognized the impact of the emotional trauma on my physical health and believed that my seeking alternative therapies had helped. He encouraged me to continue to live a healthy lifestyle and left me with a feeling of being heard and validated.
My 'ask' of health care providers reading this is that before you focus on physical symptoms that you listen to what the person is telling you and then jointly, with the patient, look for an appropriate remedy. I am not a collection of symptoms and body parts sitting in your office or being wheeled into your ER. Behind the physical being is a person whose experiences have shaped their health. To start the healing process takes just four words, "tell me your story".