What a patient’s death taught me, and what it can teach you

Cancer Vixen

One of the very first patients I cared for as a medical student here at Ohio State was a young man with end-stage AIDS.  Since there wasn’t much to do for him medically; and since AIDS still made lots of people – including doctors – pretty antsy at the time; and since a 3rd year medical student is about as useful on the wards as a screen door is on a submarine, he quickly became “my” patient.

He and I spent a lot of time together as he succumbed to the cruel attacks being waged against his weakened immune system.  He was scared; I was scared; he was pissed off at dying with only a clueless med student for company; I was pissed off at being so useless.

So we talked.  Or rather, he talked and I listened.  It was driving me nuts to not be “doing” anything, and as his condition detioriated the stories became less and less coherent, but I discovered something pretty amazing.  It helped.  It didn’t cure him, or even forestall his death, but it helped ease his suffering in a very real way.  It’s one of the most important lessons I learned in all of my years of medical training.

That is why I am very excited to announce that Professor Jim Phelan and I are offering a new course next quarter: English 361, Narrative and Medicine.  Not only will the class fulfill an arts & humanities GEC requirement, it will allow you to explore how telling and listening to stories of illness – yours or someone else’s – can often be more helpful than any medication or surgery.  The course will also offer some distinctive views of illness and treatment and how both patients and practitioners deal with their experiences.

It should be a great class.  Professor Phelan is a world-renowned expert in the field of Narrative Studies and a winner of the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award.  I will bring my perspective as someone who practices both the art of medicine and the art of narrative.  We’ll investigate a range of perspectives offered by classic writers such as Tolstoy and Chekhov as well as those offered by some contemporary writers employing new narrative forms such as Marissa Marchetto in her graphic memoir Cancer Vixen

BTW, if you’re interested in hearing more about my experience with that patient, I wrote an essay about it in the Los Angeles Times a few years ago.  Or better yet – enroll in English 361!

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University