A conversation with Dr. Lawrence Hill

Story-telling matters.

The theme of the conference is the medical humanities. After Lawrence Hill’s keynote speech, the lineup of people waiting to speak with him is long. At the end of the day, I’m inspired by the lectures I attended, but disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to speak with Dr. Hill. I should have just stood in line. While waiting on my Uber outside in Hamilton, Ontario, Dr. Hill emerges from the building. He’s waiting for his ride, too.

Sometimes life is unbelievably hard. Other times, it’s unbelievably perfect. This is one of those perfect times. We start a conversation. It turns out that Dr. Hill is giving a lecture in Halifax in the coming months. We make a plan to meet in my home of Nova Scotia so I can interview him.

For the full interview, check out the December issue of Canadian Family Physician.

Fast forward to after our meeting at the Halifax library. I am left totally inspired by my conversation with Lawrence Hill. Especially by the way that he uses his writing for the purpose of education and creating positive social change. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, Dr. Hill knows the power of story to move people. To make change. 

“Most people, whether aged 4 or 94, love a good story,” he said. “If you can find a way to get into meaty issues and do so dramatically, you are more likely to excite the attention of your readers.”

Dr. Hill certainly applied this philosophy in his book, Blood: The Stuff of Life. He writes about blood in many different aspects. The history. The science. The culture. The politics. His reference list is exhaustive. But the book doesn’t read like a textbook. Instead, it is full of stories.

In the book, there are personal anecdotes about how Dr. Hill developed a fascination with blood. He writes about the historical ludicrous blood donation policies that discriminated against black individuals. He describes the history of the sexist stigma of menstruation dating back to Aristotle. And the history of bloodletting. Did you know that George Washington died from the bloodletting he received to treat his cold? The way Dr. Hill presents the information is anything but dry. At its essence, the book is a collection of stories.

Blood: The Stuff of Life. (And my empty espresso cup).

I’m one semester in to my MA in Journalism, and throughout my first term, I’ve been learning about the importance of storytelling. As a scientist and physician, I am used to making conclusions based on reading systematic reviews and clinical trials. In the scientific literature, we present information in a specific way. Introduction. Methods. Results. Discussion. Conclusion. Do not deviate from the norm. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. And in medicine, we definitely shouldn’t embrace fluffy stories. It’s not what we do. Right?

Wrong. Unless we tell stories, unless we can show why facts and statistics matter, nobody cares. Let’s say you’re the top researcher in your field. How many people have read your last publication? Several hundred would be a huge win. Thousands would be rare. Of note, Kim Kardashian-West has 154 million followers on Instagram, 1.4 million of whom liked her most recent post. Of her pajama pic. She has an effective way of telling stories and we need to be (somewhat) more like her.

Medicine needs to buy into the idea of story-telling. We need to listen when patients tell us their stories. We also need to communicate in ways that are compelling and exciting. In the age of social media, everyone can be a story-teller. And every single person in this world has a story to tell.

Dr. Hill said that story-telling has an important role not only in fiction, but also in non-fiction.

“In non-fiction, you are limited to what you learn or what you believe to be true, but you still have to create a story. Most nonfiction books that attract a wide readership are profoundly rooted in story,” he said.

In the field of health, we practice medicine based on applying facts that we acquire. We are essentially tasked with communicating non-fiction. Let us remember that to many of our patients, numbers mean nothing. Numbers by themselves mean very little to me, too. Why not communicate evidenced-based medicine as if we’re writing a gripping piece of non-fiction? Many people are already doing this naturally. Let’s bring stories into the clinic and our lives. And let’s bring it into the digital sphere, too. Kim Kardashian-West deserves some competition.

I would love it if you would leave a comment below and let me know your opinion about the power of story and how we might incorporate it into our medical world.

Thoughts?

Author

3 comments

  • Lindsay Alston says:

    Hey Sarah,
    Have followed your blog but never commented. Excellent post.
    We do need more stories in medicine, perhaps now more than ever. As a physician, I’m often trying to convey a lot of really complex information to people. Details about the risks of treatment, the benefits of some intervention. These concepts are hard to express in a way that people can easily understand, especially when they are sick, and often scared. Maybe incorporating more storytelling would help patients understand what we are trying to tell them, and also help us achieve a connection with our patients. I think in medical school and residency our training is focused on accumulating information, synthesizing it and developing a treatment plan. There’s little room for storytelling in that sterile process. Maybe there needs to be.

    Thanks for blogging.
    Lindsay

  • Martin Eckhart says:

    Hi Sarah,
    As I read your blog about storytelling in a medical setting, my mind immediately drifted towards the stories we get to hear as physicians every day. We are in such a privileged position to enter into the lives and most intimate moments of the patients we serve. We get to observe their stories …. to share their road for a few steps. The medical facts we encounter in our examinations and investigations are often sign posts of an imminent change in a person’s story. Maybe our storytelling mainly lies in helping our patients see their future and allow them to navigate different paths. I think we are often doing this already … cautioning patients about smoking and how it will affect their ability to enjoy life to the fullest … after these antibiotics, little Billy will be fine and back to his usual self in a few days .. if we do not take out that appendix now, your pain and fever will get a lot worse … this chemotherapy might help you attend your anniversary, but likely you will not be well enough for that trip South in March ….
    Our patients are writing their own story, we just get to inspire them to make it a good one!

    Keep blogging your great stories!

    Martin

  • Paul McIntyre says:

    Have always liked this quote from Hannah Arendt: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” Doctors are privileged to find themselves, in the course of an ordinary day, supporting players in compelling and very rich narratives. The pace of clinical medicine makes it challenging to appreciate this. Somehow can we train our minds to open and be precise – to appreciate & value patient/family context while maintaining expertise?

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