Stories clarify

Kathy’s story starts with the lived reality and prognosis for a patient-person in a coma on a ventilator machine. She invited everyone involved to describe the situation. Their narratives revealed that family members and the neurologist had very different understandings of the word “okay.” Kathy connected these insights with scientific data to enable the interested parties to come to a common understanding and decide next steps. Kathy draws on this experience when she teaches others the value of narrative medicine. Among other things, it’s a way to clarify what’s at stake and to correct misunderstandings, especially when critical medical decisions must be made


Kathryn Kirkland

MD, Dorothy and John J. Byrne, Jr. Distinguished Professor and Chief of Palliative Medicine, Geisel School of Medicine and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health

Supplementary materials


Charon R. “Narrative Medicine: A Model for Empathy, Reflection, Profession, and Trust.” “JAMA. 2001;286:1897-1902

Kathryn B. Kirkland, Amy Price; After Dying Alone: The Restorative Power of Narrative Practice External link, opens in new window.. Anesthesiology 2022; 137:366–369 doi:

Kirkland K, Charon R. (Podcast) External link, opens in new window.


A story-telling exercise from Kathryn Kirkland, MD

  1. Prepare. Get ready for writing by immersing yourself in an image. Find a painting or photograph that shows a healthcare setting (e.g. a waiting room). Take 5 minutes to make note of aspects of the scene that you notice. Share what you have noticed with someone and have a conversation about the experience.
  2. Write about an experience you had. Describe a recent healthcare encounter that involved you and at least one other person. Write about this experience for approximately 5 minutes using the first person (“I”). Set this aside until after the next step.
  3. Write again. This time, describe the same healthcare encounter, but this time, step into the shoes of another person who was involved in the experience. Imagine how they might tell about the same encounter, and write (again in the first person, for 5 minutes) but from this person’s perspective.
  4. Read aloud the 2 stories to someone else and listen to their 2 stories. Notice how the 2 versions are similar and different.
  5. Reflect together on the experience—what was it like to write your story? What was it like to imagine how someone else might tell it? Did anything surprise you? What did you learn? What might you want to learn next about storytelling? How might you use stories better? How is any of this relevant to healthcare?