The Use of Personal Story in Health Care

by Andre Heuer & Charlotte Phillips

This two-part article is a description of a two day training session conducted by Dr. Andre B. Heuer and attended by Charlotte Phillips at St. John's Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri. Dr. Heuer first gives an overview of the sessions and Ms. Phillips shares her personal experience.

Andre B. Heuer, D. Min., LICSW uses the power of humor and personal story to heal and guide. He is the staff support group facilitator and grief counselor for a Hospice in Minnesota. He is a board member of the Northstar Storytelling League. Dr. Heuer is the founder and producer of 'experiments in story', and cofounder of A Company of Tellers.

Charlotte Phillips is the coordinator of the Community Alliance for Compassionate Care at the End of Life. She is a story keeper and serves on the Advisory Board of the Ethnic Life Stories Project which is now under the auspices of Drury University, Springfield, MO.

Part I

In February I was privileged to present a two day training session for health care professionals at St. John's Hospital System. The primary purpose of the workshop was to train group facilitators in the use of the personal story with stroke patients. Thirty-some individuals attending the training sessions represented a variety of health care professionals.

The participants learned methods of using personal stories to provide support and to help patients to integrate their experience in a meaningful way. Special attention focused on ways to use the personal stories of the patients to enhance cognitive, verbal, interpersonal, and motor skills. The participants learned ways to incorporate storytelling with other treatment modalities such as art therapy, physical therapy, and psychotherapy, etc.

There was a total of four sessions over the two days. Each session included theory, activities, and discussion. Participants explored ways to integrate and adapt the content of the session to their particular discipline and joined in interdisciplinary discussions to gain different perspectives on the role of personal stories in the health care environment.

The enthusiastic response of the health care professionals at St. John's Medical Center is clearly an example of the need to continue to develop methods of training health professionals in the art of storytelling. As story practitioners we need to understand storytelling as a treatment modality and how to use it in conjunction with other therapies.

Part II A Participant's View

Workshop day is bitterly cold, a fact immediately forgotten upon entering the McCauley Room at St. John's Hospital. The chairs are arranged in circles and many familiar faces greet me. They represent Springfield's growing love affair with story.

Andre illustrates. He tells us a story from his childhood. We crawl through the basement and up the stairs with him to the circle of storytellers in the kitchen. We feel the grit on the floor and smell the strong beer as we inch closer to that international microcosm. We feel the warmth of Mother's hand on Andre's head and the love with which he is drawn into the circle.

A web of colors connects us as we toss a yarn ball from teller to teller around the circle. I lean forward to hear the story of a circle mate, a story that illustrates core being. Even now, two weeks later, my mind travels the circle and I can remember Steve's cave story, Wanda as a new bride, Paula's monkey attack. The stories convey daring and courage and transformation without those adjectives. Each one resonates inside me. We go around again, creating a single story from bits of our own lives. We must really listen to each other.

We accept Andre's invitation to label important stories in our own lives. Some come to mind easily and are quickly written down. One is difficult. I debate whether to write it down because I am not ready to tell it if asked. I write it down. It was a turning point for me. I'm never asked. I get to choose what I tell. Thank you Andre.

We build one of our stories, three sentences at a time until there are twelve in all. We work in pairs. We tell our stories to each other and then repeat back what we have heard. Magic! When John tells my story back to me I receive a gift much greater than the one I gave. He has made connections and heard truths in my story that I had not uncovered. I think of Jesus with the woman at the well.

A therapist in our midst raises a question. Andre purposively responds with an exaggeration. When we try to manipulate another's perception, we are doing evil. It is a violent act. I am struck to my core. I think of my attempts to woo my estranged brother back into our family circle, of all the times I've tried to share my own reconciliation with family achieved through gathering the stories of my parents. I see how manipulative I've been and how I have blocked my ability to hear HIS story. He has cut off all communication with me. I pray for another chance to listen. I go to sleep with these thoughts.

The sun is shining on Day #2. We've changed locations and are in a more intimate setting. This morning we will explore sensory paths to memory.

A whiff of peanut butter and Mary Rose remembers the omnipresence of that staple in her youth with great nostalgia. She loves peanut butter. Ellen associates peanut butter with her family's poverty and shivers at the offending odor. Beautiful Stephanie closes her eyes and breathes in. Perfume. She tells a story of her mother's obsession with appearance. After many years Stephanie still struggles to reorder her priorities and give meaning to her life.

Andre pulls objects from a bag and the stories fly. A plastic banana split and instantly I see the one my father and I shared on the trunk of his car last summer. A lighter conjures happy images of rock concerts and sad ones of dead parents smoking.

We form circles in the open spaces in the room. Each of us finds a gesture to represent a story. Silently, we pose alone and then in pairs. The circle interprets. I am sewing my wedding dress, the first object I gave myself ample time to complete, a big step toward maturity. We are surprised at how often we see dominance/subservience in the tableaux. What does that mean?

Finally, we work in silence, sharing crayons, markers and paper. We've been instructed not to communicate in any way. One group experiences a major misunderstanding of intent. I sympathize because I, too, had contemplated the same action. With permission Andre grabs and shoves participants around the room to illustrate the violence our assumptions can do. One "victim" makes an impromptu sign, "REPENT." The whole workshop collapses in laughter.

Through the two days there is comedy and tragedy, and laughter and crying. I come to realize that we are now connected through our stories. It does not end there. One week later I see Steve in a crowd on the street. His face leaps out to me and our eyes meet. I remember his stories. We smile.