Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist Focuses on Narrative Medicine
Michael Vitez is the Director of Narrative Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Before joining Temple in Spring 2016, Michael was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 30 years, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1997 for a series of stories about people facing end of life decisions. In addition to many pieces for the Inquirer that have gone viral, he is also the author of the acclaimed Great Americans: Stories of Resilience and Joy in Everyday Life, The Road Back, and Rocky Stories: Tales of Live, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps.
Through his current work, including a course on Narrative Medicine, Vitez helps students, physicians, and staff at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia craft creative pieces focused on telling stories.
A: What brought you to write about health care at the Inquirer?
MV: I believe in the power of stories to heal, build community, and unite, and there is nothing better than a story well told. And I love narratives and telling stories. At the Inquirer, I gravitated towards medical stories. When I won the Pulitzer in 1997 for a series of stories I wrote in 1996, it was really a fluke. The paper asked me to write about aging. And everyone said “Aging? Bleh – old people!” I said yes because what a writer wants more is freedom. I believed that there were great stories everywhere and it depends on what you bring to it. I found it to be an incredibly rich subject. Aging is about families, it’s about relationships, and I found I could write about end of life which was fascinating, and about long-term care, and the demographic and policy changes in America.
A: What did that teach you about the power of storytelling?
MV: I learned that the most impactful stories are when you write about an ordinary person, and you immerse yourself in their life. You can write about them with immediacy, and tenderness, and honesty to illustrate a larger issue and marry the two of a global context with a compelling human interest story.
A: What led you to narrative medicine at Temple?
MV: I had been at the Inquirer a long time, and it was a fabulous career and a fabulous life. I wanted to do one more thing. I was 58 years old when I left, and I saw that all these doctors were writing – Atul Gawande and so many others. I had never even heard of the term narrative medicine. Since, I became aware of this whole field that is really about honoring stories of illness and stories of patients and empowering doctors and physicians in training to reflect and process their own emotions to use writing and to deal with the incredible things they encounter, especially at a place like Temple. So the paper offered a buyout, and I took the plunge which was the hardest decision of my life.
I knew Dr. Kaiser, [Dean of LKSOM and President and CEO of Temple University Health System], and I said I could come up to Temple and help your physicians write. There are great stories over there, and I could teach. He was very excited. I give Dr. Kaiser a lot of credit, he said let’s take a chance.
A: What are your goals for the narrative medicine program?
MV: It’s a program we are building, and there is no real prototype. Columbia is the pioneer, and there are other places with elements of it, but none that I know of that are led by a writer as opposed to a physician. So I’ve jumped in here and I sort of see the job on three tracks. One, I’m going to write. The goal is to bring a sense of wonder to the hospital and life in the hospital. My goal is to focus on the empathy and the humanity, whether it is the tinniest little story to the biggest story about big ethical questions and decisions. I’m going to do what I love and tell stories.
Two, I’m going to be editor-writer working individually [with students, faculty, and staff]. Most of these are their own reflections, stories they want to tell, and we’ll see where that leads. We are creating a narrative medicine website where the stories can run here, and offer them up to medical journals or newspapers. We are just going to explore and see where that leads. I don’t have any agenda but to make you the writer fulfilled and replenished and all that.
Three, I’ll teach. It’s a great experiment to see if the life-long skills of a writer can translate and be of value to students. We have these two electives that start this fall, Narrative Medicine where we tell patient and student stories and Humans of North Philly which focuses on the neighborhood around Temple and is inspired by Humans of New York. I can’t help you suture or diagnose, but I hope to help students tell their stories and the stories they encounter in the clinic.
(Editor’s note: One of the pieces written by former Emergency Medicine resident and new attending physician Naomi Rosenberg that Michael helped edit ran in the Sunday New York Times on September 3, 2016)
A: Why do you think it is important for everyone in medicine – students, residents, interns, nurses, and patients – to write?
MV: I know it is a desensitizing, isolating experience to be a medical student and physician, especially a young physician. It is incredible pressure and demand. While I’m really fearful of adding work and piling on, I hope the opposite occurs. Writing is a great way to reflect and to reinvigorate yourself and come alive. I know that I often don’t know how I feel about something until I write it, so I think it is important for your own nourishment to take a moment and reflect if you’re so inclined. I also think that journalistically, the world really wants to know what you guys think and see. You’re at the front line, you’re young, and journalism is changing for sure. Look at the Gawandes of the world, there is a great appetite and you can journalistically, by writing, educate and help advocate for your profession, for your patients, and nourish yourself. If I can help the students help themselves, that’s great. It’s not just necessarily writing either. I’m up for if you want to write, paint, sing, dance, whatever you want to do, anything that encourages reflection and release, I’m all for it. I really believe in stories, if I can help you communicate better and you practice it, maybe that will help you in listening to your patients and communicating with them. If I can help you appreciate the power and value of story and the love of the story, that might help you in relating to your patients or communicating with other physicians. The jury is still out, but it’s a great adventure, and we’ll find out.
A: Do you have any advice for students and physicians who are looking to get creative but are wary on how to start?
MV: I think that if you feel it here (Michael points to his chest) if you experience something, you saw something, sit down and don’t worry about grammar. Don’t worry about mechanics. Good writing is hard, and we can work on that. But just sit down and write. Show me a draft. Don’t worry about it being perfect, it won’t be. I think you just go for it and sit down and share it. If you feel it, sit down at the keyboard and let it go. And enjoy the process, no fear, no pressure – writing should be the opposite of fear and the opposite of pressure. I’d also say think like a story teller, think scene, put people in the room. Let them hear the dialogue, let them see what it looks like, give me action. If it’s not evident by the anecdote, then explain why it affected you so or thrilled you or upset you or stayed with you or surprised you or whatever.