To Heed the Whisper
Diana Farid, MD, MPH, shares how empowering her voice made her a storyteller and why women’s voices in medicine are vital.
We stood in the supply room crying together. Megan* and I didn’t want to leave the basins, boxes of gloves, and gauze. No one would yell at us in there. We were on one of our Q3 call nights as third year medical students on our OB rotation. We had each just seen one of our first deliveries. She told me how her attending screamed expletives at her while she fumbled putting a glove over her different abled hand. I told her how my attending had slammed the instrument tray into me — it wasn’t an accident. We asked each other if it looked like we had been crying before we returned to the nurses station to watch the uterine and fetal heart monitors.
When I got back to my apartment, I called my mom, an OB/GYN who did her residency training in Boston in the early 1970s. “Was this what it was like for you? Is this medicine?” I asked.
About four years later, as a family medicine resident, I delivered a baby whose mother was one of my first continuity OB patients. The baby’s face reminded me of a rising full moon. I was living the family medicine dream: care for the mother and father as their physician, deliver their baby, then care for all of them. The abuse I experienced in medical school didn’t end in residency, but I was determined to create a different experience for the medical students I taught, my colleagues, and my patients, that was as far from the abuse of my training as I could.
I kept in mind my mentors — the ones who walked into a hospital room, sat down next to the patient, held their hand, and quickly knew not only their medical history but also their greatest loves and fears. And I remembered my mother’s gratitude in caring and advocating for her patients over decades. Yet I knew that a wider culture of patient-centered care (as well as training that nurtured reflection, human dignity, and dare I say, flourishing) needed more than a single doctor doing better.
I started to listen to a voice, one that had always spoken to me but was now growing louder. In medical school, the whisper encouraged me to study flamenco dance in Spain, sing in our medical school variety shows, and sign up for a painting class at the Art Institute of Chicago. In residency, the whisper urged me to sign up for a screenwriting and entertainment-education class. It rallied me to make a feature-length documentary film about music and health and study public health communications. By the time I was driving up the I-5 to move to Stanford with my husband, with our seven week old and two year old sleeping in the back seat, that whisper was a roar. It called me to meld medicine with the arts, to propel conversations toward human-centered care, and build empathy through the power of art and story.
A few years ago, when my first children’s book, When You Breathe was published, Full Moon Face Rising baby’s mother reached out to me. She asked me for a signed copy for her daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Since then, I’ve visited with hundreds of children to explore the poetics of respiratory physiology. A few months ago, at a school visit for my book Wave, a student thanked me for showing them how a doctor can also be a writer. Around the same time, a mother of a child diagnosed with cancer thanked me for Wave’s story that weaves themes of patient care and healing together with Rumi’s poetry and ‘80s music. Over the years, I’ve been able to contribute to health humanities programs at Stanford. And my dive into storytelling and the arts has deepened my connection with my own patients’ stories.
As a kid sleeping on an exam table, I often got walked in on by a colleague of my mother’s and her patient. They’d apologize for waking me up. I’d say that I was waiting for my mom to finish charting. I couldn’t know then that I’d also sleep in an exam room as an intern, when the other four beds in our call room were already full and one of the other interns had a fever and a cough. I couldn’t know then that I would save the notes that I scribbled of the people and processes that shook me, stabbed me, and still haunt me. And that they would inspire my writing. I couldn’t know then that the story I’d tell to my pediatric patients with asthma about their breath would become a book. I couldn’t know then that I too would deliver a baby, and then have a chance to give that same baby a book I wrote — one that celebrates her breath and the power of a voice to better the world.
I couldn’t know that I would get a chance to share with you about how listening to your whisper is a prized ride. But here I am, walking into your exam room, asking you to wake up. I know you have charting to do. But there’s a Full Moon Face Rising and asking, ”What whispers to you?” What’s made you cry in the storage room? What song about health care can you not get out of your head? What could happen if you acted on that whisper? That voice you grew before medical school, the soft one that brushed against your arm in training, the one that might be buried now, hurried, hungry, attending another promotion info session, tell us what it’s saying. Is medicine what you want it to be? Use your whisper for all our sake, to move us toward what medicine and healing should be.
*Name changed for privacy.
“That voice you grew before medical school, the soft one that brushed against your arm in training, the one that might be buried now, hurried, hungry, attending another promotion info session, tell us what it’s saying. Is medicine what you want it to be? Use your whisper for all our sake, to move us toward what medicine and healing should be."