Vivian’s perspectives on working in healthcare as a nurse changed dramatically after learning about the value of stories of patients, their family, and colleagues through the eyes of Dr. Dickey. Learning to “listen and reflect words” when someone is telling their story has made her a more effective nurse and a better, more compassionate colleague. She uses these skills every day in her work, especially when orienting new nurses, and found them very effective as an adjunct professor teaching student nurses at DeSales University.
I met Lorraine Dickey many years ago while working as a bedside nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I had worked on that unit for about 15 years at that point and thought I was doing a good job with my technical and communication skills with parents, families and co-workers.
In hindsight, I will admit we had a very toxic unit, with many senior staff taking a bullying approach, with poor collaboration between nursing staff and the providers, particularly the doctors.
Lorraine, as a relatively new medical director to the unit, introduced the staff to narrative medicine. She mandated the entire staff attend one 4-hour session on narrative experience for team building, which I hesitantly went to. My co-workers felt the same as I did, making comments such as, "Why do we have to do this?” and "What a waste of time.”
During the session Lorraine broke up the participants into groups of 6 to a table. She purposely broke up the NICU nurses and put us at different tables. I was placed at her table as she facilitated – really, my co-workers made me go to her table as they were hesitant to be with the medical director.
I realize in writing this that it makes Lorraine seem like a mean director, but it was actually the opposite. She was authoritative, although great to work with on a physician/nurse team, but she kept to herself and was not very sociable. She did not share many stories about herself, her family or really anything unless it was work related – we just didn’t know much about her. Her body language screamed ‘not approachable’, unless it was related to the tasks at hand.
During the breakout session, before we wrote our stories, she took her badge off and stated that she was not Dr. Dickey during this session. She was just like all of us there for one reason – to write, read and reflect.
After that session I saw a different side of Dr. Dickey. She was just like all of us, with stories that needed to be told. Following the storytelling session we went back to our original tables and I told my co-workers about how great the session was. Lorraine opened up and shared her story, which made me and others at our table see her in a different light. It was an eye-opening experience for me and I had no trouble sharing that experience with my co-workers. In fact, the next day while working in the unit, I tracked Dr. Dickey down. I had to tell her how well the session went and that I saw such a nice and different side to her. I explained that I was looking forward to the next session and many of my co-workers would be joining me. I told Lorraine that I saw a different side of her, a nicer side I did not know existed. She was truly speechless, for the first time I’m sure.
I mention this story a lot to new staff members, not so much about Lorraine but about how we all have stories to share, including physicians and managers. I’ve heard many stories from all aspects of healthcare workers – from housekeepers and translators, to nurses and providers – and the common theme is that we are all in this together. Being able to share a story with peers makes a huge difference. It makes us better listeners for patients, parents, family members and co-workers.
I and many other staff members became believers of this process due to that session. To hear stories from co-workers, including providers and ancillary staff that were so profound made us better listeners and much better people to work with – it’s all about understanding where people are coming from. We learned how to address important issues where perception matters from hearing co-workers’ personal stories. Words matter, perception is really a person’s reality and emotions always seem to trump logic.
So, almost three years ago when Lorraine asked if I was interested in helping her start up The Narrative Initiative, LLC I jumped on that opportunity. I’ve seen it work on so many levels and not all in healthcare. It has been a wonderful ride with eye-opening experiences along the way and it continues to make a difference, even virtually through teleconferencing.