For those practicing and studying medicine, storytelling is as essential a tool as the stethoscope. As such, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is organizing the first-ever citywide medical story slam, featuring seven medical schools—including the Perelman School of Medicine.
The slam, presented in the same vein as The Moth story slams at World Cafe Live, is an effort to create open dialogue among doctors, nurses, and medical students who often struggle to express their feelings.
“In the medical literature these days, there’s a lot about physicians and med students being burned out, depressed, or anxious—or even suicidal. Storytelling addresses that problem directly,” says Douglas Reifler, associate dean for student affairs and medical humanities at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, who helped organize the inter-school slam. “The more sense of meaning in our work and purpose, the less likely we are to be depressed or burned out in doing it. In medicine, there’s a risk in going through a lot of phenomenally dramatic experiences, but having to minimize any reflection about them—to put them behind us and move on.
“Storytelling requires taking a step back, reflecting, and discerning what is meaningful and often inspiring about the experiences we’ve had.”
Here’s how the event works: “Teams” of two from each school, with at least one of the two being a medical student, will share stories based on interactions with patients, their experience in medical school, or any other significant impact their career has had on their lives. Stories are limited to five minutes each.
Penn’s team will be represented by third-year MD-Ph.D. candidate Elle Saine, a first-time performer who will deliver a story titled “What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You,” as well as third-year medical student Vidya Viswanathan, who has performed in the past as part of Penn Health Equity Week.
“The concept of a story slam is becoming more and more popular in the medical field,” Viswanathan says. “The [first Penn story slam I went to] was really cool because it brought together physicians, attending physicians, residents, and students—all levels of the medical hierarchy. And everyone’s story was different; it was a good experience.”
In the past, she has shared a story about a patient’s family translating a cognitive test in Cantonese, reflecting on the ethics involved therein—of someone’s treatment being different because of a language barrier.
In her upcoming story, she hopes to emphasize the importance of managing stress as a medical student—particularly one in the midst of clerkship—and encouraging others to be more understanding of student mistakes, recalling a moment when she fainted in the operating room after feeling immense pressure from others in the room.
“I think a lot of people are scared of being seen as weak or less qualified in medicine [if they talk about challenges],” Viswanathan says. “But everyone has certain stories of how they had to work hard at one specific aspect of their personality, or knowledge. I think if people shared that more, on a higher level, we might feel less self-critical as med students.”
The event, to be held at the College of Physicians, 19 S. 22nd St., on May 7, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., is open to the public with an entry fee of $10. The slam is sponsored by the College of Physicians and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which will celebrate the launch of its “Agenda: Wellness” program, spotlighting medical programs in the city that integrate the arts with medicine.