Third Year Medical Student at Wake Forest School of Medicine Explores the Role Human Narratives Play in Affecting Social Equity and Positive Health Outcomes
by Vaidehi Mujumdar
Students of Public Health: Voices & Profiles focuses on research projects and other contributions students are making to advance public health.
STUDENT VOICES — My interest in narrative medicine initially began with the social ingredients of my own upbringing before I even knew what the term meant. Living in diverse communities in India, California, Mississippi, and Virginia before age eight shaped my formative years. It wasn’t until I went to college at Dartmouth that I was able to give language to my experiences. My classes in anthropology and experiences at Dartmouth helped me realize the importance of ethnography and qualitative research in understanding people’s stories – which in turn could better inform policy and practice.
During my junior year at Dartmouth, I conducted thesis research in Mumbai, India, at a Canadian-based NGO in urban and peri-urban community. My thesis advisor urged me to frame my ethnographic work around a series of questions that I still use in my professional and personal life today: Who are these people? What do they want?
Over the years, I have often reflected on how ethnography can be used as a powerful tool in health research and in understanding the human condition. The stories I heard and later wrote about in my thesis will never lose their immense power in reminding me that even though you cannot always directly help someone, you can always offer compassion in the face of suffering.
I wanted to further explore how these different aspects of human narratives affected health outcomes, specifically in a US context.
After college, I worked as a post-graduate fellowship in New York City at Health Care Chaplaincy Network. I primarily worked with interprofessional health teams in Harlem and Queens public hospitals to determine how spiritual care methods could help reduce readmission rates for Medicare patients. We found that catering to the anxiety and fear caregivers go through when caring for someone with a chronic illness could be mitigated through chaplaincy services.
Furthermore, my health advocacy volunteer work in New York City as a clinical rape crisis advocate at The Bellevue Hospital and as a freelance writer expanded my view of narrative and stories as a powerful tool for social equity. The first time I read my work aloud was at the Bowery Poetry Club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My piece published in The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, titled “The Operation,” was an excerpt from my thesis work that focused on narratives of reproductive trauma and health access.
In New York, I often found what was meant to be a service opportunity or work event became a moment of self-realization and often self-healing. Much of my volunteer work with the rape crisis program pushed me to write for several different platforms on health issues facing communities of color and specifically women of color.
At Wake Forest, I have continued to hone in my interests on ethnographic research and health disparities both at Baptist Hospital and in the community. My first year, I helped co-found Wake’s Medical Students for Choice chapter, which increases the visibility of reproductive health disparities in medical education. Last summer, I designed a study through the Medical Student Research Program focusing on gathering psychosocial trauma narratives of HIV+ patients. The findings of this work have implications for the role of trauma and its subsequent effect on reproductive health behaviors. My main service work over the last two years of medical school has been as an Albert Schweitzer Fellow. I worked with a classmate to develop a unique teen cancer prevention program focused on increasing the rates of HPV vaccination at a local high school. This community-based work has helped plug me into the voices and needs from the margins, from people living with HIV to 10th grade high school students.
Now as a third year medical student, people ask me what I want to be when I grow up. I know I will land in a field that allows me to advocate for women’s health issues. However, it’s not something I ever actively pursued. I fell into it as opportunities came up and went with my gut feeling of what I felt was right and what types of communities, research ideas, and people I felt energized by. And knowing that my gut feeling has brought me to where I am has been a gratifying experience. That’s the advice I give to mentees and pre-meds. Have a direction and goal, but be ok with that direction changing, often in ways you do not expect. Every time someone tells you no, there will be another opportunity that opens up with a yes. Say yes. The best experiences and opportunities I have had and have in my life come from saying yes to things and letting myself land where I was meant to land.
I believe at its core, medicine is a profession of narratives – of the human body, of the societies will live in, of physician and patient relationships. Once we start seeing it in that way, it becomes easier to see the inherent humanity in all of our patients and colleagues.
I spent last month at the American Medical Association conference in Chicago surrounded by physicians and medical students who at their very core spend every day trying to help others – people who spoke with hope and passion about how to better the health of our nation, to hold our patients above politics, and to build each other up. The stories we exchanged, especially the ones that resonate with others, made it clear how crucial narratives are in our profession.
And when you realize that your narrative transcends boundaries, language, and culture, it becomes almost a crucial act to share that story because it is a story of a shared human experience. In medicine, we often work with people who are much different from us – whether they are patients or colleagues. In today’s America, if we are asking people to embrace what is different or other from them, we need to have the stories and voices that can give representation to those differences. The types of narratives we become accustomed to matter in all aspects of our society, especially health care and medicine.
Vaidehi Mujumdar is a medical student at Wake Forest School of Medicine. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2013 with a double major in anthropology (modified with ethics) and biology. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, The Almost Doctors Channel, The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, India.com US Edition, Media Diversified, Matador Network, and others. Vaidehi was a 2017 recipient of the American Medical Association’s Excellence in Medicine Leadership Award. Follow her on Twitter @VeeMuj or see more of her work at her website.