Yesterday, I received a perfectly-timed message on a group thread. My friend wrote that she loves patient advocacy.
“Me too,” I thought, as I filed away notes from a Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida Meeting hosted by the Leadership Action Team (LAT). What was the purpose of that meeting? To train volunteers on how to employ storytelling in their advocacy work. Planned Parenthood trains all of its staff members, and now volunteers, in the “Story of Self” curriculum created by Get Storied® , which is a program designed to teach businesses how to create social change through the art of storytelling.
The meeting began with introductions and a moment to safely process the recent shooting in our hometown. A young volunteer explained how the event affected her and her family:
I learned about the shooting on Facebook…And honestly, all I saw was, ‘Massive Shooting,’ and thought, ‘Oh, another shooting,’ and kept scrolling. I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, until that night while watching the news with my mom. I looked over at my mom and she was crying. She just said, ‘I am afraid for you.’ She’s never before expressed concern about my activities. But now she says, ’I am afraid for you.’
This volunteer was young, but her voice carried a surprising amount of assuredness. I felt her confusion and fear. The next attendee shared their story, and then the next, and so forth as the meeting progressed.
We learned that there are three key components to one’s story of self: a challenge, a choice, and an outcome. Zac, the chair of the LAT, shared his story of self, which described the healthy relationship with his mother and the openness with which she educated him regarding sexual matters when he was an adolescent male. The two-to-three-minute story, complete with a joke about educational materials containing graphic penis pictures, ended powerfully with the line,
When I walk into a Planned Parenthood, it’s the same kind of environment my mom created for me for talking about sex.
We received our first assignment, which was to reflect on the experiences in our lives that have shaped the values which call us to leadership. The program will later have us refine the various details of our stories, practice in one-on-one and group sessions, identify ways in which we plan to use storytelling in our advocacy work, and take action. We had five minutes to silently reflect.
Ok, what is my campaign? Women’s health. Yeah, but what specifically? To help women access and achieve the best reproductive health care possible. Nice. So why do you want to do that? Because reproductive health is the most important thing in the world! Ok, but why?
Figures of maternal morbidity and mortality popped into my head. I could see again the absence of a clitoris and labia in my Nigerian patient who underwent female genital mutilation as a young girl. I remembered the way the vaginal introitus feels beneath my hands—stretched and strong—as a baby’s head begins to crown. The voice of an adolescent girl echoed, “I mean I want to have sex, but like, I’m not a slut.”
It is easy for me to think of patient stories that depict why I am pursuing a career in Obstetrics and Gynecology. But a story of self is just that. A story of SELF. I struggled to think of inspiring personal experiences.
Time is up! No.
Each person in my small group shared their story and received feedback. My turn circled around and I rambled on about women’s health. I managed to state two strong lines, “I volunteer at Planned Parenthood because it still remains the one place to offer judgement-free care. Not even my own gynecologist can say that.” But my story lacked focus and a compelling personal example.
That night after receiving my friend’s text, I began to think more about the meaning of patient advocacy. As a medical student, I think my primary role in patient advocacy is to ensure that my medical team knows about our patients’ health histories and needs. During my internal medicine/family medicine clerkship, in order to help care for a patient, I compiled a short document of excerpts from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology regarding HIV prophylaxis treatment in pregnant women with negative HIV status who have regular, unprotected sex with an HIV positive partner. In that instance, helping my resident defend her treatment plan was my way of advocating for my patient’s health. Patient advocacy means that I volunteer monthly to escort patients safely into Planned Parenthood clinics. It is the reason why I study exercise and pregnancy, so that I can advocate for pregnant athletes seeking to find a balance in the pre- and post-partum periods. Additionally, patient advocacy means that I write on the MSPress Blog about topics that matter.
Stories in medicine can break stigma, help people relate to the struggles of others, and empower someone to raise their voice. Stories identify why we should care about an issue, and can inspire others to take action. Although I do not yet have an organized understanding of the many personal experiences that inspire me daily to fight for reproductive health care, I think I am well on my way to becoming a strong patient advocate. Fortunately, I do have a clear goal: support the improvement of access to reproductive healthcare and higher quality of reproductive healthcare for all.
Quoted persons in this paper gave permission to be on the record.
Story by Alexander Affleck