The White River Junction VA Medical Center has joined six other VA Hospitals in a program that interviews Veterans about their life stories and makes the transcribed oral histories part of the patients’ medical record.
The program, called My Life, My Story, was started by the VA Hospital in Madison, Wis., in 2013 and is expanding to six other VA hospitals around the country beginning in March. The new sites, in addition to White River Junction, are Asheville, N.C.; Bronx, N.Y.; Iowa City, Iowa; Reno, Nev.; and Topeka, Kan. Initial funding for the White River Junction VA program was through the VHA Office of Patient-Centered Care & Cultural Transformation and ran through the end of FY2015. The Veterans Education and Research Association of Northern New England Recently received a $75K grant from The Byrne Foundation that will allow WRJ VA to extend the program for at least a full year.
Madison VA therapist and My Life, My Story coordinator Thor Ringler has been with the project since it began.
“I think it’s about people having a voice,” Ringler said. “The story is really a way to connect providers with Veterans and have them connect over something that’s real and meaningful. I think there’s something missing in healthcare and this project is just one way to bring the spark back and remind us why we’re here – who we’re here for.”
Marine Corps veteran Michael Gundlach was recently interviewed at the Madison VA.
“Being able to talk about my experience was a morale builder, first of all, for the acknowledgement of [my] service,” Gundlach said. “And second of all—and more long-term—it gave me the chance to review my life. The way the interview was conducted felt very stress-free. I think the program is absolutely something that should be expanded.”
After conducting an interview, which typically takes about one hour, project staff and volunteers write up a story about the Veteran’s life. They then review it with the Veteran and, with Veteran approval, add the story to the Veteran’s medical record. They also alert the Veteran’s primary care and inpatient care providers when the story is added.
Polly Boynton is a nurse practitioner at the Madison VA who consults the stories frequently.
“I have taken the time to read each “My Story” I have encountered in my patients’ charts and am grateful to have the additional dimension and background,” Boynton said. “It is a true pleasure to read these stories; I feel I gain such valuable insight into the humanity of my patients.”
Until recently, the Madison VA was the only facility offering this service to Veterans. A grant from the VA Office of Patient Centered Care allowed the project to expand to the six new sites.
Gundlach knows that for many Veterans, it is not an easy thing to tell your story, but he encourages their participation.
“I would highly recommend this to any Veteran who is at a point in his emotional status where he can talk about it,” Gundlach said. “If you think that you don’t want to talk to people—say your friends and family—this is another way to release and talk about something that is so important. There’s absolutely no downside to participating in this.”
The program in Wisconsin has interviewed more than 500 Veterans and trained more than 25 community and student volunteers to gather their stories since it began in 2013. White River Junction VA has launched the My Life My Story program and has begun collecting Veterans’ stories to be included in their patient records. As the program grows it will be a great resource for providers and Veterans alike.
My Life, My Story Program
• The My Life, My Story program uses stories to foster a sense of connection between health care providers and their veteran patients.
• The goal of the project is to improve the quality of care given to our veterans as well as improve communication and understanding between patients and providers.
• The program began at the VA Hospital in Madison, WI and was expanded in March 2015 to six other VA Hospitals across the country, including White River Junction. The Madison VA recently completed their 700th story, proving the remarkable impact that the program can have on patients and the culture of hospital.
• Program currently focuses on inpatients, but we hope to expand to outpatient clinics soon.
• Doctors and nurses are often too busy to spend enough time with patients to learn about their past or anything beyond their list of symptoms. These providers, DO, however, have 2 minutes to read a brief biography of patients and in so doing, gain a little bit of insight into the humanity of their patients.
• Through this program, veterans are given the opportunity to provide some information that is critical to who they are as people, which often goes overlooked or unexpressed during routine appointments.
• Typical interviews last about an hour.
• The scope and depth of information that is shared is completely at the patient’s discretion and he/she has the right to end the interview at any time, for any reason.
• Story is returned to patient within 1-2 days for the opportunity to make any edits.
• Once approved, two copies are made—one goes in the patient’s VA medical record and the other is presented to the patients, to keep for themselves or to share with family and other loved ones.
• The benefits of this process are multi-fold:
1) — Patients usually appreciate the opportunity to tell their stories and the time and effort taken to ask questions about their lives typically leads to more favorable experiences of the care they receive.
2) — Numerous studies show that there are many health benefits for patients who tell or write the story of a difficult emotional event.
3) — Developing a narrative helps doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers receive a contextual understanding of a patient’s experiences, which ultimately leads to the patient receiving better and more effective, personalized care.
Interested in participating or volunteering at White River Junction VA Medical Center?
White River Junction VA Writer-Editor
Jeremy.Summers@va.gov (802) 295-9363 x 5920