Mountain View Voice

News - December 17, 2010

New program at El Camino tells patient's stories

Living History gives insight to caregivers and sick alike

by Nick Veronin

Walking amongst the physicians, nurses and robotic couriers — past rooms that house cutting-edge surgical equipment and computerized tomography machines — are a group of three volunteers who contribute to patient wellbeing at El Camino Hospital with little more than a pen and paper.

The volunteers are responsible for recording the stories of individual patients for the hospital's Living History Program. Asking questions about their childhood, school, hobbies, careers, loved ones and the things they cherish most, the interviewers take down the answers and put them together in a brief report, which is shared with the patient, the patient's family and included in the patient's file.

The task with which they have been charged is simple enough, but the interviewers behind the hospital's Living History Program are helping patients in "profound ways," according to the Rev. Maryellen Garnier,

"It really humanizes the patient experience," said Garnier, the hospital's chaplain. When doctors and nurses attend to a patient, they have access to a medical record, which may tell them about allergies, past injuries or surgeries, but the Living History provides a healthcare provider with so much more. "We get insights into this person's life."

Garnier is responsible for bringing the program to El Camino. She first heard about Living History — which was created in 2000 by a registered nurse working in the Midwest — over the summer, and brought the idea to the hospital's Patient Satisfaction Committee. The committee liked the idea, and volunteers began interviewing patients in September. So far, she said, the program has been well received.

"Getting to know people is really a privilege," Garnier said. "It enriches their experience and the staff's experience."

The history of Living History

Sheila Brune, an avid reader of newspaper obituaries, was working as a case manager at Great River Medical Center in Burlington, Iowa, in 2000 when she was struck with an idea: "What if we had the kind of info that is in an obit, but in a patient's medical record instead?"

As a case manager she had read plenty of medical records, and listened to many nurses engage in small talk with their patients. But the conversations always revolved around impersonal, often trivial, matters, Brune said — the weather, gossip, politics. "A lot of banal stuff."

She brought her idea to her manager, got the green light, and ran with it. Now, 10 years later, her program has been implemented in about 25 hospitals around the country.

Although her program is copyrighted, Brune allows healthcare organizations to use it for free. "I don't need money, I need happiness," she said. "It's my stewardship. It's what I can do."

The way Brune tells it, her program has brought happiness to many. Giving patients a chance to just talk gives them an opportunity to tell stories they had all but forgotten. It changes the way nurses and doctors interact with patients, as well.

"We're more loving and caring with the way we deliver care when we know more about you."

Living to tell

People often ask Garnier if Living History is only for the terminally ill. In response, she points to the name of the program. Plenty of patients whose histories are recorded end up being discharged and go on to live healthy lives.

Although the science in this arena isn't as clear cut as it is in the field of pharmacology, as the hospital's spiritual leader, Garnier knows how important a positive outlook and healthy state of mind is in a patient's recovery. An essential component of spiritual care, she said, is simply having a priest, parson, rabbi, imam or monk at the bedside, listening.

"When they tell their story, they are able to sort of reflect on their life, and I think it really does give them an opportunity to heal through the process of someone really being interested," Garnier said. "Just to look at their faces while they are being interviewed — they just sort of light up. That's got to have some impact on the healing process, I think."

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