Interview with Dr Frank Brennan: Storytelling in palliative care

Categories: Care.

Dr Brennan is a palliative care doctor, holds a law degree and is an accomplished writer and storyteller. He has published work on palliative care as a human right. His event at the conference transformed the main plenary hall into the intimate setting of a traditional Irish country kitchen, and brought the audience along with him as he visited his patients, allowing us an insight into the richness of humanity that he had experienced while working with people facing serious illness and death.  

Dr Brennan, thank-you for meeting me today. I’d like to talk to you about storytelling in the context of palliative and end of life care. 

Could you start by telling me: Why is it important to tell stories in the context of end of life care?

Because its such a human thing to do. It’s an area of human expression that is emotional, fraught and challenging, but also it can be very loving and illuminating. And that mixture can be best captured with storytelling or with or poetry or music. Much of what we do in palliative care is very subtle and intangible, hard to express and mysterious. You attempt to respect that mystery by realising that a straight description may not best represent that full picture. 

There is something very natural and human in storytelling. The story of illness and suffering needs to be heard, and then that simple thing can be very helpful and healing. 

Another aspect of storytelling is the way that it can teach people who are not there.

That is one of the main aspects of the story telling, the capacity to tell outsiders, or not really outsiders, but outsiders of the room, the sense of the thing that occurred. 

I’m attracted to stories that are complex and deep, stories about things that may have been challenging to me as a physician.

I know you do a lot of work around palliative care as a human right. Would you say that there is a link between human rights and storytelling?

Yes, yes. Well to me even though it may not be expressed as a human right, for instance the right to be listened to, it would be as it is a human need, and so many rights are expressed as needs such as water, housing etc.

Being listened may not be expressed legally in that sense. If you have to look at the whole apparatus of palliative care, the fine details, the listening to the person, to what the person is going through. 

So much of the basics of palliative care as a human right, the whole thing of access to services, access to health professionals. I would say that the right to be heard is part of the right to palliative care. 

Can you tell me how you came to storytelling?

I come from a family of storytellers, both my parents being good story tellers. Its a long-distance connection, I have Irish ancestry. I know that with my grandparents, the sense of storytelling was always there. I loved English and Literature at school. I was often almost transported by great literature. I would get drawn in to the story.  

The origin of the set of stories that I read last night came from this country. The woman from county Meath, the protagonist of one of the stories, she was here and she was very eloquent. 

I realised that there may be such power in writing these events down rather than letting them go. 

Often palliative care professionals tell stories as a way of being and of coping in this sector. 

Also, I quickly realised in the merit of me, the doctor, not being the centre of the story.

I realised from the beginning that I had to be absolutely completely true to the story. That there was not a need to embellish, that these stories had a resonance of their own.

Can you tell me why it is important to bring storytelling into the academic space of a conference? 

In a story you are going to have very human responses which are unpredictable unusual, quirky and honest. They are very true to the person. 

Because it deliberately shines a light on the experience that we are all going through, potentially tapping into something emotionally deeper and just as true as the scientific representation. A purely scientific approach to this area would miss a huge amount and storytelling gives a deep richer representation. 

Can you tell me your story of how you came to be a palliative care doctor?

When I was thirteen years old my brother, Tom, died of bone cancer. He was 11. There was a profound effect on my family. It was my first experience of what doctors did and of mortality.  

Hearing what the doctors were  saying, particularly to my mother… It was not pure science, but also kindnes and wisdom. I realised that I wanted to do this too, then when I left school, I studied medicine. 

When I was at medical school, there was no palliative care being taught. 

Some years after graduating, I did a law degree, then I returned to medicine to work at an aboriginal medical service in Sydney.

Then I started looking for a change and became curious about palliative care and started working in this discipline. 

What is your favourite story? 

It is a book that is very famous: To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I’m drawn to it on so many levels, childhood, parenting, wisdom, kindness and courage.

Thank-you very much.

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