Narrative 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.”
She has incorporated narrative medicine and her own experiences into her courses at Union, both first-year inquiries and Minerva courses. “I find that the response from students is really moving,” she said. “Students often thank me and they’ll share more openly about people in their own lives. So many of our students have been touched by death in one way or another.”
She studied narrative medicine at Columbia University with Rita Charon, who pioneered the field that encourages health care professionals to ask questions about the patient’s situation, not just those on the medical chart.
“It’s a different approach to use the skills of active listening, close observation, and crafting meaning from one’s experience to better treat and work with them for the best care possible,” Nelson said. “These are transferrable skills. No matter what field you’re in, this approach is really helpful.
“It’s my own mission to help improve the health care experience in whatever way I can.”