The mission of Erika Nelson

nelson-2bNarrative medicine, which encourages patients and families to share stories about their experience with illness or death, may seem like an unlikely path for someone whose career has focused mostly on German language and literature. Erika Nelson, associate professor of German Studies, came to the field from her own life experience: the loss of her late husband, Neil, in 2019, after a nine-year battle with cancer.

“Talking about death and dying teaches us what life is,” said Nelson, who also directs the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program. “Even with my husband’s passing, there were so many beautiful things. I had the great fortune to care for someone else and really fight for their life. And I learned so much about grief … as the world went into mourning for COVID, I was there too.”

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Narrative medicine, narrative practice, and the creation of meaning

The-LancetMedical interest in the study of narratives, whether those of patients or doctors, goes back a long way. However, the field of narrative medicine emerged in the late 20th century and is associated in many people’s minds with two seminal texts. One was Narrative Based Medicine: Dialogue and Discourse in Clinical Practice, a collection of essays edited by two British academic general practitioners, Trisha Greenhalgh and Brian Hurwitz. The other was Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by the US physician and literary scholar Rita Charon. In the years since then, the field has diversified considerably, but there is a consensus among its teachers and practitioners that narrative is central to medicine, requiring attunement to narratives told by patients and clinicians and competence in engaging with them. Read more