For many hospital patients, the chance to tell a story can be a godsend. “I was really pleased with the sound of my voice,” says a woman named Darleen, who recently recorded a story for friends while undergoing an extended hospitalization for cystic fibrosis at the University of Michigan Hospital. “I sounded healthy!”
Darleen is one of approximately 125 patients at Michigan Medicine who’ve recorded personal stories through Story Studio, a unique bedside program that invites patients in the University of Michigan Hospital to record their stories for family and friends. Jeff Evans, an instructor in the Social Theory and Practice Program at LSA’s Residential College, co-founded Story Studio in 2012 in collaboration with writer Ami Walsh and Elaine Sims, director of Michigan Medicine’s Gifts of Art Program. Story Studio is one of the bedside programs offered by the Gifts of Art Program at Michigan Medicine.
While some hospitals encourage expressive writing activities for patients and caregivers, patient-centered audio storytelling programs such as Story Studio are rare. Like National Public Radio’s “StoryCorps,” Story Studio enables people who might not otherwise record a story to do so. There’s no writing involved, just a single bedside recording session with a facilitator. Recording sessions typically last under 30 minutes—a boon to patients who may lack stamina after a day of treatments and tests.
Evans, who is also a Clinical Associate Professor Emeritus in U-M’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, has long been interested in the intersection of the arts and health. At the RC, he teaches courses on “Art, Mind, and Medicine” and the psychology of creativity. “The arts generate a physiological response that connects pretty directly with immune system cells,” he explains.
Last fall, the team published a paper on the program's history, methodology, and its findings from 55 follow-up interviews with patients in order to evaluate how recording a personal story affected them. Evans, Walsh, and Sims report that patients who participate in Story Studio say they feel grateful to have the chance to record their stories. They like being able to connect with others—loved ones, hospital staff, even an organ donor family. Several patients said Story Studio deepened their understanding of the hospital experience. “It basically put everything in perspective,” said one. “[It] made me come up with some words of inspiration for my children and kind of mapped out the next five, 10 years and how we’re going to handle ourselves as a family.”
“What makes Story Studio work is that it’s not therapy—it’s a gift,” says Evans. “When patients see that we’re inviting them to do something for expressive aims, that has more to recommend it than if it were for therapy. Patients are so ‘therapized.’ This is something different.
Kimberly Paul (A.B.’07), who studied with Evans, has interviewed patients too. “It was really amazing to hear how much they got out of telling just this one little story,” she recalls. “It seems this one evening encounter with Ami, and recording their story, changed the way they looked at the whole hospital—and maybe even their trajectory going forward.”
As a psychologist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit, Paul says Story Studio reminds her that the patients she sees “are full, vibrant, multifaceted people.” It’s a lesson all health professionals need to remember. “Now that these people are in the hospital, they’re not just a diagnosis—they’re also this person. Story Studio definitely helps keep that in my mind.
Walsh, who is a former journalist with an MFA in fiction and experience recording stories with pediatric patients, facilitates the storytelling sessions. One evening a week she goes through the hospital with a cart filled with recording and editing equipment. Most patients she visits have been referred to her, and usually these patients are in the hospital for longer stays and have chronic, not acute, conditions. “There’s a very small population of patients that are well enough, have enough energy, aren’t overwhelmed by their condition, and want to share a story,” Walsh says.
Walsh begins every session by introducing herself and asking a simple question: “Is there someone in your life you’d like to give a story to? That one word, ‘gift,’ works magic,” she says. “For certain patients, it gives them permission.”
When a patient says yes, Walsh spends the next few minutes talking about the kind of story they want to tell and the specific audience they have in mind. Then she takes out her recorder, and they start. “It’s amazing,” she says. “Most patients seem to know the energy they need to tell the length of story, and they come to a natural close. At the end they frequently say, ‘Did I just do that’?”
“I surprised myself,” said Darleen. “I appreciated talking about something different, instead of talking about medical stuff.” And, she adds, “I was honest. That’s a testament to my comfort with Ami.”
After recording the patient’s story, Walsh leaves the room to make light edits. She returns with an MP3 file on a flash drive for the patient to keep and share.
Although it’s a small program, Story Studio has garnered national attention from other health professionals. Evans, Walsh, and Sims have used the program to help train medical students and rehabilitation psychologists. Evans, too, uses Story Studio in his teaching.
Robin Goldberg (A.B. ’10), who studied with Evans as an undergraduate, has helped to conduct a research study on the program. “The patients all talked about how empowering it is to have created this while in the hospital, and to share this with their family,” she remembers. “When people realize their own ability to influence their life story and how that affects their health process, it’s invaluable.”
The Magic of the Undergraduate Classroom
Kimberly Paul and Robin Goldberg both credit Jeff Evans for where they are today. Paul took a first-year seminar with Evans on “Creative Composition and the Neuropsychology of Language.” When she saw the class on offer at U-M, she was ecstatic. “I remember not being able to sleep the night before registration—I thought everyone would want to take the class. Luckily I was able to get in.”
Evans, then a clinician in Rehabilitation Psychology and Neuropsychology at the U-M Hospital as well as an RC instructor, showed Paul that she could combine her interest in clinical psychology with teaching and the arts. “He was just overwhelmingly encouraging,” she recalls. Paul went on to get a PhD in psychology from Roosevelt University and then landed a postdoctoral fellowship in Evans’s own department at the U-M hospital. “I came full circle,” she laughs. Today Paul is a rehabilitation psychologist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, part of Detroit Medical Center.
Robin Goldberg took Evans’s RC course on “Arts, Mind, and Medicine.” “I remember reading that course description in the LSA catalogue and saying, ‘Oh my gosh—I have to be in this class.’” Years later, Evans asked Goldberg if she’d be interested in helping conduct research on hospital patients at U-M. She wound up collaborating on Story Studio.
“I credit a lot to the magic of the Residential College, where you just meet the right people and connect and have such faith in each other,” says Goldberg, who’s now a holistic health care practitioner in Ann Arbor. “I see so much of the inspiration for what I do coming from that experience. Jeff and the RC led me in a direction that has been beyond anything I could have imagined.”