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Emotional Signposts

In the next few months, I’m going to be doing some work around children, so I needed to get an updated TB test.

Stuck in a small room with a clinician while she prepared the tuberculin, she asked me the usual pleasantry: “So, what do you do?”

I told her briefly about how I work with medical storytelling and help people connect better through narratives.

She paused thoughtfully for a minute, and said, “My dad passed away recently. In the hospital, there was one doctor who took the time to listen to my dad’s stories…” and her voice trailed off as she choked up.

The very first time I worked with medical residents on storytelling, our theme was why and how they each decided on a career in medicine. I considered the subject personal enough to have some interest, but factual enough to be able to practice story structure. I was surprised when some of the residents had tears in their eyes or openly wept while they told their stories.

I’ve since learned that tears are a kind of signpost that I’m on the right track, that the stories we’re able to tell are resonating, and that I can talk about this work and why it matters effectively. I would never want to deliberately tug on someone’s heartstrings. A tearjerker for the sake of getting someone to tear up would just make me a jerk.

It’s a signal to me, though, that most people — but especially those who have made a profession out of being so close to matters of healing and death — are looking for ways to articulate something about their experience.

It sounds odd to even me that I made a woman cry after only 5 minutes of knowing her, but I’m grateful for those tears. It’s a sign that we’re going in the right direction.