In Brief

Tell me your story

Patients and caregivers heal and help others by recounting their experiences

Best friends Margaret McCulloch and Jackie Fitzpatrick reminisce as if they’re sitting on a porch sharing a bottle of rosé. But unlike typical conversations between the friends, this one is being recorded for the Stanford Storybank program and will be shared with the Stanford Heath Care community.

  Illustration by Gérard Dubois

On this day, Esther Chyan, RN, a Stanford Cancer Center supportive care manager, is recording the conversation and ensuring it’s clear. Bryanna Gallaway, director of the Service Excellence program at Stanford Health Care, stands by to facilitate. But the friends don’t need guidance. “I clearly remember the day you told me there was a lump in your breast,” McCulloch, 52, tells Fitzpatrick, 54, as the two sit in an improvised recording studio on the third floor of Stanford Cancer Center South Bay in San Jose.

When Fitzpatrick was diagnosed with cancer, McCulloch told her not to worry. But McCulloch now admits that “when I got the phone call that you were diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer, my heart sank.” 

SHC is conducting the Storybank program in partnership with StoryCorps, a national organization whose mission is to capture, honor and preserve stories about human experiences through audio interviews. Each 40-minute conversation features two people — a patient and a family member, for example, or two SHC employees. If participants agree, the conversation will be archived within the U.S. Library of Congress and edited for SHC use. 

The program is intended to allow patients and staff to share their experiences as well as learn, connect, heal and inspire. The stories “bring us back to why we’re here, why we do what we do,” says Alpa Vyas, vice president of patient experience for SHC. The Service Excellence team highlights a story a month on SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/patient-experience.

Before they start, Gallaway tells Fitzpatrick and McCulloch: “It’s OK to cry; it’s OK to laugh; it’s OK to do anything you would normally do in a conversation.”

In the recording session, the friends, who met 12 years ago when their children were in kindergarten, talk about how Fitzpatrick’s cancer, diagnosed six years ago, affects their lives and friendship. 

“How do you distract your mind, not to think about cancer 24/7?” McCulloch asks. 

“I don’t dwell on the negative stuff,” Fitzpatrick says. “I admire that about you,” McCulloch responds. 

“The one thing that cancer has given me is a clear, concise view on my family and what’s important to me,” Fitzpatrick continues. “I made amends with people I needed to make amends with. It’s a blessing. It’s been a difficult journey, but it’s kind of worth it.”

They laugh about how Fitzpatrick’s hair grew back white after a round of chemotherapy and she looked like Annie Lennox. “I kind of had fun with it,” Fitzpatrick says.

Turning serious, she asks McCulloch, “What’s it like for you? I sometimes think it’s harder for the people not going through it.” McCulloch confesses, “Sometimes I think that I’m weak. I want to make you better, but I can’t.”

The friends say it was cathartic to share their story, and Fitzpatrick says she hopes the Storybank program can help others. “I really want to provide hope to people in the same situation.”

Contact cicare@stanfordhealthcare.org to participate in Stanford Storybank.

Mandy Erickson is a freelance writer and editor.

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