Everybody has a story to tell, even a self-professed average
That was the lesson that Doug Lawrence of Galax, Virginia, learned last December,
and he’s much more at peace because of it. Around Christmas, 66-year-old
Lawrence was hospitalized at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center with what he
thought was pneumonia.
He came to learn from his medical team at the hospital that
the pneumonia was in reality pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs, a
progressive disease that is terminal. The diagnosis sent Lawrence into a deep
It was that day that Brooke Embler, a nurse taking care of
Lawrence, asked him if he’d be interested in being interviewed by a volunteer
and sharing his story. The interview would be recorded and then Lawrence could
freely share it with his family.
Lawrence was skeptical at first. “I thought it was a
dog-and-pony show designed to keep the volunteers busy,” he said. But he agreed
to tell his story to a stranger.
Justus Harris, a volunteer at the hospital, interviewed
Lawrence for over an hour. “Doug was very emotional. Between the bad news
medically and the fact he couldn’t play Santa Claus this year, he was upset,”
Harris said. “At the end of the interview though, I sensed he felt more at
peace. We ended the discussion on a good note. He is a very jovial man.”
Lawrence said he was glad he opened up to Harris.
“He was quite the interviewer,” Lawrence said. “When all was
said and done, I felt better about things. I realized I can be miserable or I
can make the most of every day of my life, and I chose to go that way.”
Lawrence’s wife, Sherry, found a changed man when she
visited the hospital that evening. He was much more optimistic. “He told me, ‘I
told him things that were buried and deep,’” she recalled.
The storytelling project at Forsyth Medical Center came
about as a result of a meeting between Scott Livengood, a hospital donor and
former chief executive at Krispy Kreme, and Jeff Lindsay, executive vice
president and chief operating officer at Novant Health.
Livengood has had a lifelong fascination with storytelling
and served on the board of the International Storytelling Center, meeting the
nation’s most talented storytellers.
“Story is a tool I have used in business from strategic
planning to brand building to building culture,” he said.
Lindsay had a desire to bring the therapeutic benefit of the
arts into the hospital, and both men wondered if there was a way to use the
power of the story in the clinical setting.
Livengood approached Dr. Bruce Rybarczyk, a professor of
psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, about partnering on an oral
narrative program for Forsyth Medical Center. Rybarczyck has done research
showing that narrative interviews can help patients cope by allowing them to
share positive parts of their personal stories.
The LifeStories project was first implemented at the
hospital about a year ago. Volunteers receive two afternoons of training on how
to interview people and ask open-ended questions. They’re not trained
psychologists but good listeners, said Harris about being a volunteer
Harris said it’s a powerful feeling to see people in
distress change their outlook through the therapeutic power of storytelling. He
added he believes the experience is very valuable to the volunteers as well.
“Telling a story and getting it out of your system is as
powerful as any medication,” Lawrence said of the benefit derived from his
interview. “It’s become easier to deal with my situation. There are differences
between medical science, prayers and getting to tell your story.”
Lawrence plans on giving his recorded interview to his wife
of 41 years and letting her experience it on her own.
Discussions are underway to expand the LifeStories program
system-wide at Novant Health.