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The power of the word

Sharing of stories helps patients cope


Everybody has a story to tell, even a self-professed average Joe.

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 funk.

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 interviewer.

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.





Published: 3/16/2015