The Power of Storytelling in Medical Environments for Children

Amy Ryder is a current MEd student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge. Prior to returning to study, she was the Community & Events Fundraiser for Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal, the Bristol Children’s Hospital charity, and then a secondary school teacher of English. Her research interest in the intersections between narrative and medicine for children combines these experiences.

My interest in the function of narrative in children’s medical experiences first revealed itself through the medium of a small, plastic cartoon bee. Meet Buzzy – a cheery little fellow who vibrates enthusiastically, has icepacks for wings and, conveniently, comes with his own tourniquet. During my time working for Bristol Children’s Hospital, we were involved in funding Buzzy devices to help young children find relief from injections, blood draws or cannulisation whilst in hospital. When placed on an injection or IV site, Buzzy’s wings and gentle vibration confuse the nerves and distract attention from the needle, thereby dulling the pain. Buzzy can hugely minimise distress for children, particularly those with conditions that require regular injections and those too young to fully understand what is happening to them.

Image Credits: https://buzzyhelps.com/pages/buzzy-boot-camp)

While biology can explain how Buzzy works on the body, I have become more and more interested in how Buzzy functions to make sense of an experience which must seem, to a young child’s mind, incomprehensible (why am I in this strange place, why do these people want to hurt me and why are mummy and daddy letting them?). I’ve concluded, somewhat crudely, that what Buzzy potentially does is give this confusing and scary experience narrative form and relevance, thereby allowing children to contextualise and rationalise the pain and fear they may experience. After all, we all know and teach our children that bees (even cute, benevolent bees like Buzzy) can sting. By reconfiguring the pain from a needle into a bee sting, a difficult experience is transformed into a story that a young child can make sense of. Buzzy represents to me the vast potential of narrative to support children as they encounter medical procedures (unless, of course, as someone once remarked to me, you’re also afraid of bees). But I think that this is besides the point: pain and fear are unpleasant emotions but they are sometimes necessary and unavoidable, particularly in a medical context. The narrative of Buzzy contextualises these negative emotions: bees sting, that’s why my arm hurts, but the bee flies away and the pain will go away too. For young children particularly, this seems easier to process than the abstract concepts often involved in medical treatment.

This commodification of symbolic communication as a therapeutic instrument is, of course, nothing new. The relationship between narrative and the medical world is rich in intersections. Dr Benjamin Oldfield, a paediatrician with an interest in narrative medicine from John Hopkins Hospital, states: “Effective medicine requires narrative competence, or the ability to absorb, interpret and act on the stories and troubles of others”. “People who are sick and those for care for them are storytellers,” Oldfield continues. “Let patients and their families talk. And let’s learn from their detailed accounts of themselves”.

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Image Credit: http://members.iinet.net.au/~nicolee/ladybird_pictures/images/Topsy+Tim/topsy+tim_go_to_the_doctor.jpg

Storytelling is everywhere in medicine: history taking itself is a form of personal narrative, each generation has its own picturebook equivalent of Topsy and Tim Go To The Doctor and medical charities (as exemplified here by The Grand Appeal, East Anglia Children’s Hospices and Young Epilepsy) use ‘patient stories’ both to encourage donations and to support other children and families experiencing the isolation that illness or disability can bring. I don’t see it as any coincidence that you navigate the website of the Bristol Children’s Hospital Play Department as though turning the pages of a storybook, or that the NHS itself, on its page advising how to prepare children for a hospital visit, advises caregivers to “play doctors and nurses or operations using teddies and dolls, and read story books about being in hospital”. But while our NHS might prescribe stories for children, it does not necessarily have the resources to fund them, so much of the music, arts and play therapies a child will experience in hospital will have been funded by the third sector.

While the therapeutic power of storytelling is most obvious in that it provides children with the comfort and distraction of a story and restores a sense of family normality to the hospital environment, what may come as more of a surprise is that storytelling can have physiological effects on the body itself. An amazing example of this is the Cots for Tots Appeal’s ‘Tell Me a Story’ programme which provides books to the families of babies being cared for in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St Michael’s Hospital, Bristol.

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Image Credit: Cots for Tots

The programme is grounded in research that discovered how the mother’s voice has an important role in the neurological development of a foetus or newborn and that being read to can increase a baby’s  cardiorespiratory stability and growth, improve deep sleep, lower the elevated heartrates of preterm babies, improve autonomic stability, result in significantly fewer episodes of feeding intolerance and overall shorten a baby’s hospital stay (Cots for Tots, ‘Tell Me A Story’ information leaflet). So, as well as giving families a way to connect with their new baby at a time when many parents can feel lost and helpless, stories have an additional role to play here in shaping the biological development of the body itself.

This broad overview does little justice to the vast wealth of music, play and arts therapies charities provide for children all over the UK, many of which have narrative and storytelling techniques at their core. What I hope it does do, however, is provide an introduction to the idea that storytelling has the potential to reshape medical experiences and environments into more familiar narrative landscapes through which children become more empowered to navigate. And that’s quite an achievement for one little bee.

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