Valerie Gribben, a new medical resident as of July 1, has an insightful editorial in the New York Times on using fairy tales to understand suffering in medicine.
The practice of medicine bestows the sacred privilege to ask about the unmentionable. But what happens when the door to Bluebeard’s horror chamber opens, and the bloody secrets spill onto your aseptic field of study? How do you process the pain of your patients?
I found my way back to stories. The Grimm fairy tales once seemed as if they took place in lands far, far away, but I see them now in my everyday hospital rotations. I’ve met the eternal cast of characters. I’ve taken down their histories (the abandoned prince, the barren couple) or seen their handiwork (the evil stepmother, the lecherous king).
Fairy tales are, at their core, heightened portrayals of human nature, revealing, as the glare of injury and illness does, the underbelly of mankind. Both fairy tales and medical charts chronicle the bizarre, the unfair, the tragic. And the terrifying things that go bump in the night are what doctors treat at 3 a.m. in emergency rooms.
Most medical schools have a course on ethics and social issues, but I’ve never read anything that so fully captures the otherworldy, even unreal, aspects of human suffering that we see. Maybe what we really need as a starting point is Fairy tale Grand Rounds.