Writing Medicine workshop helps healthcare workers reflect on pandemic

May 20, 2020, 2:03 a.m.

Over the past two months, Writing Medicine workshops have become a weekly ritual for hundreds of healthcare professionals and their loved ones. Encompassing everyone from medical students to physicians to social workers to their family members, these free workshops held by Stanford’s Medicine and the Muse Program allow everyone — not just Stanford affiliates — to share their experiences with COVID-19 through virtual storytelling.

Writing Medicine is led by Laurel Braitman, director of writing and storytelling at Medicine and the Muse, a program designed to reintroduce the humanities into medical education and training. For an hour every Saturday morning, Braitman and an average of 125 other individuals gather over Zoom to share their experiences during the pandemic.

“Right now, being alone is the safest place to be, but it’s not safe emotionally,” Braitman told The Daily. “I think that telling each other true, vulnerable stories is an antidote to loneliness, because when you hear another person saying ‘Me too!’ you feel less alone.”

Not only does Writing Medicine provide healthcare professionals and their families with a space for them to share their experiences, it also allows them to relay these experiences through creative prompts created each week by Braitman. Some previous prompts include designing a mantra and writing a WikiHow article that helps someone get through a challenge during the pandemic.

Several attendees, like Stanford Medicine clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology Jody Leng, have gone on to publish their work online — something that Braitman encourages workshop participants to do.

“A lot of the time, when people share their work, either Laurel or somebody in the Zoom chat would encourage us to publish,” Leng said. “After class, I read my piece to my husband, who is also a physician, and he said I should publish it. Two days later, I had some time and felt inspired, so I sent in my piece to KevinMD and it got accepted and posted right away.”

Leng’s piece takes the form of a ’50s-style commercial about balancing her roles as a mother and an anesthesiologist during the pandemic. It has been shared by more than 1,000 people through KevinMD, a website where healthcare professionals tell their stories.

Leng has also invited her mother to weekly Writing Medicine workshops, saying that “the fact that the Saturday class includes family members is so special.”

“Many of us in medicine can feel isolated from society because people don’t really understand what we do,” Leng said. “It’s been a rare opportunity to share this with my mom, who’s been supportive of me for the past 16 years of my medical career and is now hearing similar and interesting stories from other healthcare workers all over the world.”

Brenda Kubheka, a physician and bioethicist from Johannesburg, South Africa, is one of many individuals who attend Braitman’s workshops from outside of the United States. 

“The program offers a safe space for us to write and learn from ourselves and each other,” Kubheka said. “We all have stories to tell. Sometimes, it takes writing or telling these stories to heal the storyteller.”

She has been able to use the workshops as a way to explore purposeful creative writing and has even shared her first piece about her late partner with her daughter, which evoked “tears that we’ve been holding for too long.”

Prior to Writing Medicine, Braitman’s workshops have mainly been offered to the Stanford Medicine community. However, because of the pandemic, she took the opportunity to expand to healthcare professionals and their families all over the world. 

In a TED Talk she gave last year, Braitman also talks about the mental health benefits these workshops provide mental health professionals, a sentiment echoed by Amy Yotopoulos ’93, senior manager of the Caregiver Center at Stanford Hospital.

“I initially thought that my favorite part about these workshops would be the writing aspect, but now I find myself tuning in for the sense of community and support that Laurel naturally creates,” Yotopoulos said. “[Writing Medicine] is something that I look forward to doing every Saturday for my own mental health and well-being.”

Although there is only one session per week, Braitman said that expanding the workshop to have an additional evening session could be a possibility, as 200 to 300 of the people who have signed up for Writing Medicine are not able to attend at its current time. There are roughly 1,000 individuals that have joined the mailing list for the workshop as of May 20.

“I’ve made a promise to everyone that I will keep doing this as long as they show up,” Braitman said. “My primary aim is for people to show up and reflect on what they’ve been experiencing and feeling with the support of a global community around them that understands what they are going through.”

May 20, 9 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that there are now roughly 1,000 individuals that have joined the Writing Medicine mailing list.

Contact Camryn Pak at cpak23 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Camryn Pak is a news managing editor. Contact her at cpak 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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