By Mary Pritchard, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – The My Life My Story program has been changing the way veterans and their doctors connect. Dr. Susan Nathan, MD, of the VA Boston Healthcare System and her colleagues have been participating in the program for several years.
“We interview veterans about their life stories and write a one-thousand word first person narrative which we review with the patient. With their permission, the story goes into their medical record,” she said.
“We get to know who they are outside of their medical and/or mental health situation. We also give them copies to keep or share. They are printed on letterhead and presented with a letter thanking them for their story, service, and sacrifice along with a pamphlet about the program.”
It has become clear to the medical professionals who participate in the project that the stories of their patients – knowing who they are – belongs in their medical chart. “It’s a wonderful starting place; in the first person voice,” Dr. Nathan said. “This is who I am, these are some of the things I’ve been through and this is what’s important to me.”
Founded in Wisconsin, program continues to grow
According to Dr. Nathan, the program began in 2013 at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Maddison, WI. With the success of the program, it was implemented more widely and continues to spread with 60 VAs and 5,400 veterans across the country participating so far, and more than 1,000 veterans interviewed at VA Boston.
“While the program has been developed and grown through the VA, it has been spreading to area non-VA hospitals. It’s a culture shift, at least locally, that knowing the story of this person sitting across from you is important,” she said. “This facility is a large education and training hub where students, residents, and fellows do clinical rotations. Integrating this process directly into the education experience means that wherever they ultimately end up, healthcare providers will start off with who their patients are in their entirety.”
Healthcare providers interview veterans and hand write their stories
Dr. Nathan, Attending Physician in Geriatric and Palliative Care and Site Director for My Life My Story Project at VA Boston, Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Adjunct Instructor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, noted that the handwritten, not recorded, interviews involve an increased level of listening, focus, and intensity which allows the interviewer to get a lot out of the interview.
“Sometimes the veteran’s story is so close to the surface that they have an eagerness and openness to share and they just begin sharing their story. Sometimes they aren’t used to being asked in a medical setting about non-medical things,” she said.
“Sometimes we do this with the help of a family member, but this is their telling of their story at this moment in time, often starting simply with ‘let’s begin at the beginning, where did you grow up and what was it like?’ For patients who are seriously ill or approaching the end of their life, this provides them and their families with a legacy they can keep forever. For a person who wants to, at that moment it’s important to share their story and experiences. Now they have a place to do that. For some, it might be hard to share those stories with loved ones but now they can. One question we ask is ‘what is something you’re most proud of,’ – the answer is usually ‘my family’ – their legacy is their family. To be able to help them share that with family – it’s a different sense of helping them feel well and be well. Being let into this person’s life changes our relationship and encounter. We become true partners in this. People open up quite a bit. They share things they’ve been through. We are entrusted with their health and now we see another side that would not normally be part of the healthcare encounter, it’s not a transaction, it is a relationship… a partnership.”
New project highlights women veterans
A new project originated at VA Sierra Nevada Healthcare System, “Through Our Eyes – The Women Veterans Experience Roadshow,” is a traveling poster exhibit of women veterans displaying their current day portrait and military portrait along with their stories. VA Boston is recreating this project to feature stories and portraits of women veterans from our local Boston Community.
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