doctor's stories

Telling Stories to Patients

Renate G. Justin, MD 

Storytelling is a powerful tool that could (and should) be used more frequently in our armamentarium for pain control. Most of us have, at one time or the other, been completely absorbed while reading a good novel. A good storyteller, similar to a good author, can also capture our attention. 

And, when you use this tool on a child—by involving the child in the story, and at times, letting the child move the story forward—you can effectively captivate and distract your young patient. Once that happens, the pain decreases—as it did for my little friend, Jody. 

Meet Jody 

Jody is an 8-year-old girl, who is lying on the x-ray table and is about to have her acutely painful hip aspirated. The orthopedist is worried about a bacterial infection in her hip joint. 

Jody is apprehensive, tense, squeezing my hand, and pleading, “Don’t let her do this, Dr Justin, please don’t let her do this.” 

Big tears start to roll down her cheeks. 

I remembered how storytelling often calms my own children, who are close to Jody’s age, So, I pull up a stool next to Jody’s head, and quietly start our own story. Before long she relaxes, and even smiles occasionally. 

Even when the procedure is completed, she’s not ready to go home. She’s anxious to hear another story. I have successfully distracted my patient. 

Jody’s Tale 

The tiny fairy, named Schnippelienchen, has been a friend of Jody’s for a long time. When Jody is on her way to the hospital, Schnippelienchen slips into the car with her and starts to ask her friend questions. 

“Jody, where are you going?”

Jody can hardly talk; she is hurting so much but she answers.

“I am off to the hospital because my hip hurts a lot.”

“Oh, Jody, I’ll go with you and help you get well.”

Jody and Schnippelienchen arrive at the hospital. They are put on a stretcher and rolled into the x-ray department. Today, the fairy is wearing her white tutu. She starts to dance on Jody’s chest and turns a summersault. 

She stops to say, “Jody, do you remember when all 4 of us fairies—Pixie and the boys, John and Berger—went to Winterpark in Colorado with you? It was cold and snowing but your family had rented a warm cabin.” 

Jody nodded, “Yes, and Ruth, my sister came along.” 

“You were there before and already knew that the ski hut had huge icicles, which started on the roof and reached all the way to the ground. You let us slide on those icicles, all the way from the top to the bottom. It was so much fun that Pixie and I could not stop giggling. John lost his small, red visor cap on the second slide down and when Berger caught it, he wouldn’t give it back to him. We played until the moon turned the ice to silver. It was beautiful.”  

Jody added, “I remember that Ruth and I fixed up 2 matchboxes for your beds with pillows and blankets made out of toilet paper and we heard your soft snores when you finally came into the cabin to sleep.” 

The story my little patient and I told each other continued until the hip aspiration was finished. Jody was soothed and relaxed and absorbed in the fairy’s adventures. 

An Icebreaker 

Adults also can benefit from storytelling; in some ways, it may help break the ice. I remember one particular patient, Mrs Nederer. 

On a rainy day, I visited this lonely, elderly woman who lived in a nursing home. We exchanged greetings and then I looked outside at the rain and told her that the weather reminded me of the day I stood out in the doctors’ parking lot, embattled in an argument with the attendant on duty who did not believe that there were female doctors. I never did convince him that day that I was allowed to park with the male physicians. I told her I eventually did make it to rounds, completely soaked. 

Mrs Nederer could relate. She, in turn, shared some insight on her experiences as a female pilot during the World War II. 

Only after we exchanged stories did she feel comfortable enough to voice a few complaints. We parted later that afternoon, looking forward to more stories at our next visit. 

Framing the Truth 

Sometimes I use storytelling to convince my patients that I am being truthful. Often at the bedside of a terminally ill patient, I am asked about a timeframe. 

“When will mother die?”

My answer is unsatisfactory: “I really don’t know.”

I soon learned that patients and their families needed more. I added this true story to my answer, and the words seemed more palatable.

“A long time ago, I admitted an 80-year-old lady to the hospital. She was not aware of her surroundings and did not respond to her caretakers. She remained in this state for several days. Truthfully, I was sure that my patient would not recover. 

Much to everyone’s surprise, she started to wake up and talk to us. She was later discharged from the hospital and lived comfortably for several more years. We physicians are poor prognosticators of the hour of death. We are not privy to death’s timetable.” 

Suddenly, my “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer, and I am viewed as more compassionate, rather than dismissive. 

Stories do not have to take much time to be effective. And, they can be flexible and adjusted to fit the circumstances of the moment. If you don’t already, I would strongly urge all, as healthcare professionals, to use this tool when you see fit—it is fun, has no serious drug interactions, and can be surprisingly effective. 

Renate G. Justin, MD, is retired from Indiana University Medical School faculty and private family practice. She is still telling stories.