Telling a story is, in itself, a radical act. By distilling the complex and oftentimes inscrutable human condition into an accessible narrative, we can learn what it means to know another and preserve their legacy even after they have passed on.
I first confronted this upon joining my Bass Connections team, Expressive Writing for Resilience in Adult Pediatric Oncology Survivors and Their Caregivers, which focused on harnessing the power of personal narratives as a therapeutic intervention for former cancer patients. Having never explored this form of more humanities-based research, I was shocked when I began working with project supervisors Dr. John Evans and Dr. Ray Barfield – two of the most compassionate, articulate men I have ever met – and realized that what we were developing was as essential and effective as any medication or biological treatment.
Our team shared our own stories, examining the nuances of our pain and the potency of our formative experiences with microscopic precision. From these findings, we fashioned a therapeutic intervention that allowed people to find relief, comfort and closure by writing freely about their cancer with no restraint or rules. Together, we were able to bring our expressive writing paradigm to actual patients and eventually publish literature on the project’s work – another story told.
My wonderful experience with my team and the fulfillment of working on such a human-oriented project inspired me to join the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council with the intention of bringing research to even more students. Through the council, I helped to design a new observational study to collect student sentiment about Bass Connections and quantify it in order to create a more effective protocol for the program. We captured students’ stories of their time with Bass Connections, reverse-engineering them to learn about the real people in the program and weave their experiences into a greater narrative about undergraduate research at Duke.
Before my Bass Connections experience, I believed that research was entirely limited to the clinical confines of a wet lab. However, I now understand that the reason we collect this information is to improve the lives of all people through new medications or climate change reversal or financial support. We introduce new themes and subjects into these people’s stories with the goal of guiding them toward a happier ending.
While my project and its members taught me invaluable lessons about the capacity of self-expression to change and influenced me to start pursuing a more humanity-oriented form of medicine – culminating in my Reimagine Medicine fellowship, partially led by Dr. Evans – it was the storytelling aspect that has stuck with me most. By learning about one another and keeping the collective human experience alive, we achieve something greater than mere research findings. We find compassion and love.