BWH faculty, trainees and staff take part in a writing workshop.

“There is tremendous power in stories, both for the storyteller and the listener,” said Annie Brewster, MD, keynote presenter at the annual Narrative Medicine Symposium, held at One Brigham Circle on April 7.

This theme – the healing power of stories – was present throughout workshop sessions on creative writing, poetry, cultural exploration, literature and narrative analysis that followed Brewster’s keynote. Co-hosted by the BWH Center for Faculty Development & Diversity and Boston College Medical Humanities, the symposium aims to highlight the significance of storytelling as a way for care providers, researchers and hospital staff at the Brigham to connect more deeply with patients, colleagues and their community.

Brewster, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, shared her own experience as a patient. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001 while she was a medical resident, she struggled to accept her disease and didn’t want multiple sclerosis to become her identity. She yearned for stories about other people who had accepted and overcome their health challenges.
“Integrating an illness into our lives takes time, patience and self-love,” Brewster said.

Recalling a moment years later when she had to deliver a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis to one of her patients, Brewster felt compelled to share her own story. The patient, a young woman, was in tears after hearing the diagnosis; her dreams now seemed unattainable. When Brewster revealed that she had the same disease and was a mother of four, a practicing physician and lived an active life, she eased the patient’s fears and restored hope.

“That makes me feel so much better,” said the patient. The experience opened Brewster’s eyes to the healing power of stories for both the teller and receiver. In 2013, she founded Health Story Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to helping patients and their loved ones navigate illness and make sense of their experiences through stories.

Research has shown that certain narrative themes have a positive effect on mental health. Some examples include the themes of agency, which refers to the narrator feeling in control of his or her life, and redemption, which shows how a narrator’s life improves.

Brewster explained that how a story is received is just as important as how it is told.

“Receivers have a lot of power to help shape a person’s story, by being present and by the questions they ask,” said Brewster.