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Story Slam Recap: Stories that Heal, Inspire and Build Community

October 19, 2017

Pictured left to right: Jessica Fleischer (LKSOM medical student - year 1, runner up), Michael Vitez, Katya Ahr (LKSOM medical student — year 1, winner). Picture courtesy of Phil Delrosario.

Katya Ahr, a first year medical student, was voted the winner of the second Temple Story Slam this week for her story, Three Cups of Coffee, about her year volunteering in a burn unit before medical school.

Ahr was one of five medical students, six doctors and a nurse to share stories in a packed auditorium at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine.

She wowed the audience not only with her passion and storytelling — her visits drinking coffee with a burn patient who ultimately died — but with the way she addressed one of the hardest questions in medicine. Here’s part of story from the slam:

The fire took his fingers, his eyebrows, his hair, the sight in his eye, the skin on his head, on his arms, on his face, on his back, so much of the skin on his back — I think he was lying on his back when they found him.

The surgeons took his legs. They took them without asking, and he woke up after months of everything and found out that his ex-wife had made the call. “Do everything you can.” So they did.

But they saved his life and we can talk about what it’s like to wake up without legs. We can talk about a lot of things these days but what we don’t talk about is the difference between could and should.

She begins the story with her first day as a volunteer:

I knock on door eight and look in to see a small man under white sheets. I launch into my speech:

“Hi, I’m Katya. I’m a new volunteer. Can I get you anything?”

In a British accent out of a movie I get back: “Hello Dear. Nice to meet you. Could I please have some coffee?”

I rush in, grab a cup from the scattered array and add too much milk, not enough sugar, spill a little on the clean white sheets, I’m so nervous and he can tell, and he doesn’t have enough fingers left to hold the cup. Can’t stretch his neck to sip. I panic, look around the room for something, anything to help him. I stick a few straws together and hold everything in place while he tastes the coffee he’s been waiting for.

Now it’s too cold.

The story slam is part of a broader effort by the narrative medicine program to promote a culture of stories, to give students and doctors and nurses a chance to reflect on the incredible things they see and do at a place like Temple University Hospital, located in the heart of the poorest part of Philadelphia.

Stories do so many things — heal, inspire, and build community — all of which were on display in the story slam.

Jessica Fleischer, another first year student, finished second for her story, “A Shameful Moment”, about the moment during anatomy when she discovered her cadaver had a chemotherapy port, a Broviac Port. She was familiar with such ports from working at Children’s Hospital before coming to medical school. She told her story in the form of a letter to the patient:

Its plastic hollow tube protruding from your chest like a flag signifying cancer’s conquest. A shameful monument memorializing how medicine has failed you.

I wish for you they had removed that port.

I wish for you they had let you burn it or throw it out of a window.

But I know all too well that the port stayed in because the procedure would have cost you time and energy you didn’t have toward the end.

I think of the courage you mustered to battle pancreatic cancer and the gut-wrenching disappointment you felt when told you would not survive.

I re-live the suffering of the families of my past patients when I imagine your family processing your impending demise.

And at once my sadness becomes anger.

I’m angry that the port failed you and failed them.

Angered by my powerlessness — past and present.

Angry that this port stands tall on your chest while you lie flat in front of me.

Fleisher then told how, I’m overwhelmed by your generosity — giving yourself completely to the field that has failed you, in order to teach future physicians.

At the end of anatomy, before she bid farewell — she cut out that port!

The evening was filled with wonderful stories. In “The Lesson,” Dr. Stephen Aronoff shared a story from his pediatric residency, when at 3 a.m. he had treated a patient horribly, dismissively, rudely, only to learn a truth about the patient at the end that changed him for life, that made him a physician in a way that all the text books and teaching never could, a lesson he has tried to pay forward for 35 years.

Kat Jones, a case manager in the emergency department, shared a poem, Unspoken Words, about a young man, the son of a hospice patient, who moved her profoundly to the point where she couldn’t speak. Dr. Megan Healy, an emergency room attending, shared a story about how much she hates answering the Command Phone. “I’d rather do 10 rectal exams, 100 rectal exams,” she said, than respond to people calling in with so-called emergencies. But she shared the lesson from one particular call that she learned in humility and trusting patients.

So many wonderful stories, so many people willing to stand in front of their peers, to share stories that exposed errors in judgment, or a lack of humility, or anger or frustrations, or inexperience or lessons learned. So many times the auditorium was stone silent, literally hundreds hanging on every word.

As a personal aside, for me, the best part of the evening was late at night after it was over when I got this email from Katya Ahr:

“The story slam and narrative medicine program were initiatives that impressed me so much before I came to Temple that they contributed to my decision to come here. Knowing that people in medicine are having these conversations and sharing these experiences speaks to the culture of the school.”

Listen to audio from the Story Slam.


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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.