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Narrative Medicine:The Power of Story in Sickness and Health 

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, MPhil, has studied indigenous doctoring with traditional North American healers for over 30 years and incorporates these approaches in his medical practice, and in workshops in which he guides others to explore indigenous methods and perspectives. In his books Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, Narrative Medicine, and the upcoming Narrative Psychiatry (slated for July publication), Dr. Mehl-Madrona describes and supports, with impressive rigor, the importance of a person’s whole life story to their health—not just the medical history, but a story that includes ancestors and friends, interests and spiritual orientation, and myriad other influences including unseen relationships in the purview of quantum physics.

A graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine, the Psychological Studies Institute in Palo Alto, California, and Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, Dr. Mehl-Madrona first perceived the need for a parallel path to biomedicine in 1973, when, in medical school, a professor asserted that “life was a relentless progression toward death, disease, and decay. The physician’s job is to slow the rate of decline.” Mehl-Madrona quickly found a Cherokee healer with whom to study, and has continued learning from indigenous elders ever since.

“It’s not too late to acknowledge the merit of indigenous perspectives for the modern world,” Mehl-Madrona says in Narrative Medicine. “In the indigenous worldview, for example, each person is the sum of all the stories that have ever been (or ever will be) told about him; the idea that our identity is formed from telling ourselves these stories leads us to realize that each person is unique and must be approached individually to discover how he will heal.” As a doctor, Mehl-Madrona helps patients discover their own stories of illness, and create ones of healing to pull them forward to recovery. He may also recount stories he has learned from the patient’s ancestral heritage that parallel his patient’s struggles. Through metaphor, these stories help create a context of hope and a path to wellness—features that often are lacking from the “story” patients get from mainstream medicine based on statistics and life expectancy tables.

Dr. Mehl-Madrona also encourages and teaches ceremonies, based on indigenous practices, to immerse the patient in a culture of community and spiritual support for healing. Again from Narrative Medicine, “Ceremony is an important part of how I work to help people transcend limitations. Like healing, ceremony should be seen as a verb that submits us to a process of transformation, and not something that has efficacy in the way of a drug or a surgery. Ceremony provides the context from which we dialog with the Universe, with angels, spirits, ancestors, and the Divine. It guides us into the work of the soul and its healing—providing a road for personal and spiritual transformation as well as community revitalization. Ceremony gives us a path to follow away from our limitations.”

Dr. Mehl-Madrona is at the forefront of bringing narrative medicine to mainstream medical practice, but others are beginning to incorporate story and indigenous techniques into healthcare, and in the fall of 2009 Columbia University Medical School will begin offering a master’s degree in Narrative Medicine. “Through narrative training, the Program in Narrative Medicine helps doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists to improve the effectiveness of care by developing the capacity for attention, reflection, representation, and affiliation with patients and colleagues,” says the program’s website (www.narrativemedicine.org).

From May 8 to 10, Dr. Mehl-Madrona will be at the Center for Creative Education in Stone Ridge offering a series of public events: on May 8 at 7:30pm, an overview talk; on May 9 from 10am to 6pm, “Coyote Energy Healing, Indigenous Doctoring”; and on May 10 from 9am to 3pm, hands-on “Cherokee Bodywork,” concluding with a sweat-lodge purification ceremony at 3pm.

In anticipation of the weekend workshop, I caught up with Dr. Mehl-Madrona by telephone to ask a few questions. Some key points of that conversation follow.

The full meaning of “narrative medicine,” or a “storied” approach to medicine, becomes apparent through reading your books, but could you give our readers a short version of what you mean by “narrative medicine”?
Narrative medicine is the encompassing of our awareness of health and disease into a storied structure. We embed the illness into the life story of the person in such a way that we discover meaning and purpose in both the illness and the experience of recovery. And we come to a new respect for the illness, in the context of the life that it appears in.

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