On Tuesday May 7 the Columbia University Seminar on “Narrative, Health, and Social Justice” honored National Nurses Week by “Celebrating Nurse Narratives.” Nurses, oral historians, physicians, and their guests were greeted by planning committee nurses Marian Anderson and Francesca Jean as people gathered for dinner and watched the documentary “Sentimental Women Need Not Apply.”
Marsha Hurst, co-founder of the Seminar and Lecturer in Narrative Medicine (NM), introduced the event saying, “Nurses having stories to tell and hearing the stories of others is something we probably take for granted. But learning and teaching from stories, being nurtured by stories, and deepening our understanding of ourselves and of others is taking a step beyond. It requires attentive listening, close reading and looking, and honest reflection.”
After listening to Amanda Anderson, Lisanne Pessini, and Angelica Recierdo’s stories of becoming nurses, Rebekah Ruppe, Program Director of Midwifery at the Columbia U School of Nursing, facilitated a discussion noting that these narratives reclaimed the role of the nurse as storyteller. In all three, the nurse was the storyteller of the body, learning not only the instruments, the data, the clinical procedures of care, but also the deep attentiveness of observing, listening, touching, and communicating. Each narrator’s voice was so individual, and yet all were threaded through with the compassion that characterized a commitment to a new identity as a nurse.
Everyone present was invited to participate in the narrative method, which was developed at Columbia’s Program in Narrative Medicine, of writing in the shadow of a text. After twice viewing a short clip from the aforementioned documentary, Lynne Mijangos, Practicum Coordinator for the Narrative Medicine MS program, prompted, “Write about a time of giving or receiving bedside care.” Seven people read aloud what they had written in five minutes of reflective writing. The importance of a nurse’s voice, her hands, and presence at the bedside emerged, as did narratives in which nurses recognized themselves not only as nurses but also as patients, discovering that the border between nurse and patient is permeable.
Carmen Price, a nurse and May 2019 graduate of the NM Program, facilitated the discussion following readings about being a nurse by Priscilla Mainardi, John Fiddler, and Jeanne Churchill. Carmen expressed for all of us the sense of privilege we felt having the space and opportunity to listen—and to process these stories. We had been given a “gift of time,” which was a recurring theme in the discussion. The narrators all told stories in which taking the time to read to a patient, to listen to a patient, or to bathe a patient was a core part of not only patient care, but also care for the nurses themselves. In each story, there was a moment of clarity, a shift in consciousness when the listener recognized the narrator was marking a moment of deeper understanding of what it meant to be a nurse.
Madeleine Mysko read “The Sacraments of Sister Thecla,” a narrative that moved from learning bedside nursing from a beloved teacher to finding, as a patient, how care had changed since her days as a student. Now an educator and editor of “Reflections” in The American Journal of Nursing, Madeleine was asked to say a few words about writers revising work and submitting for publication. She said that being able to read stories written by nurses is a gift.
The evening concluded with VNS nurse Seema Madhaven‘s spoken word poem, “T’was the Day before Discharge” which was a stirring call to action for all.
One final prompt—to write a response to the evening or hopes for other ways in which nurses and their narratives can impact changes in health care—produced comments such as, “I really enjoyed the structure of the evening of both listening to stories and having the audience participate with their own stories” and suggestions for future work. “I wish dearly,” wrote one participant, “that every hospital would set aside the funding for a program that monthly hires a facilitator, orders a nice dinner, and treats selected groups of nurses to relax and enjoy a couple hours of ‘narrative’ experience (like tonight!).” Our wishes exactly.