Narratives are like bridges between different life worlds – by Vera Kalitzkus

Vera Kalitzkus is a medical anthropologist and currently works at the Institut für Allgemeinmedizin, Universitätsklinikum Düsseldorf. Vera does research in General Practice, Family Medicine and Narrative Medicine.

How did you happen to approach narrative medicine?

I’m a medical anthropologist by training. Narratives are key to anthropology. Without narratives there would be no anthropology or at least not the one that I value so much. Narratives are like bridges we use in trying to understand beliefs and world views of other persons, times and cultures.

I did research in the field of biography and coping with illness, patient narratives, salutogenesis, doctor-patient-communication.

Working with Prof. Peter F. Matthiessen brought me closer to the work of Viktor von Weizsäcker and the narrative structure of medical knowledge. We wrote about that in an article on Narrative Medicine for the Permanente Journal (2009). That gives pretty much the beginning and roots of my approach to narrative medicine. 

 Is there an official definition of narrative medicine where you work? If so, what is it?

No, there is no official definition. I’m part of the German Netzwerk Narrative Medizin. We have at least a short description of what we understand narrative medicine to be on our website:

What is narrative medicine for you?

Medicine is always a work of interpretation and translation. That is why narratives are one of the foundations of medical thought and action. However, the development of scientific, supposedly objective medicine has pushed narratives into the background. Narrative medicine aims to counteract this imbalance in modern medicine by refocusing on the patient’s experience and the subjective aspects of medical action.

There are many different “worlds” of language and experience in the medical context. Translation and understanding are made possible within this diversity of perspectives with the help of narrative approaches.

In our approach, we also make the connection to person-centred approaches in medicine as well as psychosomatics. Narratives are well suited for this purpose as they are understood as a human existential and significant for understanding the self and the world and making sense of one’s own life and experience.

For me, narrative medicine is a way to bring back the individual experience into the endeavor of medicine, healing, and coping with life’s atrocities. It is a way to bridge the gaps between the different life worlds (Lebenswelten) in order to come to a mutual understanding. And ultimately, I see its promise in trying to make the medical system more human. 

Further readings:

  • Kalitzkus, Matthiessen, Narrative-based medicine: potential, pitfalls, and practice. Perm J. 2009 Winter; 13(1):80-6. doi: 10.7812/TPP/09.996. PMID: 21373252; PMCID: PMC3034473.
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