StorySlamRx: Humbling Moments in Medicine Shared Out Loud

 January 24, 2024 by Janet Essman Franz

A person standing behind a microphone speaking and waving their hands, with audience members in silhouette in the foreground
At a story slam in the Heohl Gallery, Simran Kalsi '24 felt inspired to tell her story about about an experience during her first clinical rotation. (Photo: David Seaver)

Thinking introspectively, finding humility, and facing your own limitations can create difficult feelings: These feelings are easier to handle when shared with others whose journeys are similar. That was made clear by each speaker at the sixth annual “StorySlamRx: Voices in Medicine” on Thursday evening, January 18.

Larner College of Medicine students, faculty, hospital staff, and physicians from UVM and Porter medical centers stepped up to the microphone in the Hoehl Gallery to tell stories about humbling moments in their lives and reflect together on shared experiences. They explored the night’s theme, “Humbling Moments,” through five-minute, true stories that prompted laughter, tears, and reflection from the audience of 60-plus students, faculty, physicians, university and hospital staff.

Medical students in the Alpha Omega Alpha honor medical society (AOA) and Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) organized and hosted the event with mentorship from faculty advisors Andrea Green, M.D., professor of pediatrics, and Marie Sandoval, M.D., associate professor of medicine. Class of 2024 students Lily Deng, Amanda Galenkamp, Simran Kalsi, and Jack Steinharter served on the planning committee.

Modeled after The Moth live storytelling on public radio, the yearly open-microphone event allows anyone affiliated with the University of Vermont’s health science community to tell their stories. Participants and audience members represent the Larner College of Medicine, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, UVM Health Network, and Nuvance Health. Telling personal stories allows people to be vulnerable and connect with others who have similar feelings and experiences, and to highlight the human side of medicine, Green explained.

“We give space to be less than perfect, to talk about what’s hard about being a nurse, a physician, a caretaker, an educator. People laugh, cry, and share their vulnerability,” she said. “It can be a powerful healing tool to listen to stories and tell stories without fear of being shamed, blamed, or ignored.”

There’s science behind this: Evidence shows that sharing and telling stories enables people to find meaning and solace in difficult situations. Studies also show that oral storytelling improves health providers’ mental wellbeing by renewing a sense of accomplishment, and this subsequently improves their work performance and quality of care and quells burnout. In a study by Francis Mtuke, M.D., ’22, undertaken as a Larner medical student with Green’s mentorship, Larner StorySlam participants reported feelings of liberation, safety, and support.

People seated indoors smiling at something off camera

In the Hoehl Gallery, medical students listen to stories told live at StorySlamRx: Voices in Medicine. (Photo: David Seaver)

A person talks into a microphone and gestures with his handPatrick Malone, M.Ed., emergency medical services senior lecturer, told the story of the heart attack he experienced while teaching a CPR session, and how the people he trained saved his life. (Photo: David Seaver)

Each year, the students choose and vote on a story theme. Past themes have included “resilience,” “lost and found,” and “small moments that shape us.” Storytellers interpret the themes as it suits them, but all stories must be true, told in first-person, and have a beginning, middle, and end. The stories must be told without a script or notes.

This year’s theme, “humbling moments,” was chosen to emphasize humanity and demonstrate compassion and allow health care professionals, students, and staff to connect with each other on a human level, said Galenkamp. 

“It’s a way for us to realize that we’re not perfect, we’re not machines providing perfect care all the time, but we’re trying our best,” she said. “As medical students, we are at the beginning of our training, and we’re starting to see how things are conducted at the hospital through our shadowing experiences, clerkships, and advanced integration experiences. But there’s a difference between a medical student’s perspective and what our attendings and residents are seeing. The StorySlam helps us see how our experiences overlap with theirs.”

Learning storytelling skills in medical school helps future doctors empower their patients to be involved in their health care. “The communication style you use can impact the patient visit,” said Galenkamp, who is applying for residency in general surgery. “Some of the most impactful experiences that I’ve had at UVM have been watching my attending physicians teach their patients about [surgical] procedures. On white boards, the physicians draw the anatomy and point out how they will do the operation so that they can ask informed questions. One piece of surgery that makes me passionate about the field is that there’s a lot of trust-building, education, and dialog.”

Prior to the StorySlam, community members may participate in a workshop with Susanne Schmidt, M.S., LCMHSC, a regional producer for The Moth, a story coach, and a lecturer in UVM’s Department of Counseling, Human Development and Family Science. Workshop participants learn the art of storytelling and how to take stories from the page to the stage. Six years ago, Green invited Schmidt to lead the workshop, which is now offered every fall.

“Andrea [Green] explained that this was a project that the medical students would organize and host. She felt there were great stories to tell, not just by medical students, but also faculty, staff, and doctors at the hospital,” Schmidt said. “The students had a chance to shine in a different way, and the people in the room felt the stories they heard intersected with what they were experiencing.”

Some storytellers sign up in advance to speak at the microphone while others, including Kalsi, make the decision during the event.

“I was sitting in the front row, inspired by hearing others tell their stories and decided at the last minute to add my name to the hat,” she said. “Coming towards the end of medical school and being asked a lot of questions during residency interviews about who I am and where I see myself going in the next five to ten years has made me very reflective, and so I used the funny and slightly uncomfortable story of my first experience on clinical rotations as a med student.”

Kalsi’s story recalled a time when an elderly male patient with impaired hearing, puzzled by being cared for by a female resident and two female medical students, asked where the doctor was. The resident leaned over and said, very loudly so he could hear her, “Women can be doctors now, too.”

“In that moment I found it hilarious,” Kalsi told the audience. “In reflecting on it later, I thought about what it meant to me.” She explained that her family had emigrated from northern India to Kenya to England, and for many generations of women in her family, college was not an option. “As I come towards the end of medical school and get ready to graduate, I feel as though I’m moving forward with the weight of the hopes and wishes and aspirations of all the women who came before me and all the sacrifices they made, because women can be doctors now, too.”

It can be a powerful healing tool to listen to stories and tell stories without fear of being shamed, blamed, or ignored.”

Andrea Green, M.D.

For medical students, listening to stories told by working physicians and medical education leaders is a valuable experience, said Naomi Hodde, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and hospitalist at UVM Medical Center, where she treats cancer patients and trains staff how to have end-of-life conversations.

“We have to process the emotions that come up, and it’s important to do that with your coworkers, your nurses, your team. It’s valuable for mental health, improving connection, and preventing burnout, and to understand that is so important for medical students,” Hodde said. “As a working physician and professor at Larner, modeling that vulnerability for the students and the residents is critical, so that they can see it is okay to be emotional, and that working through it is important.”

Hodde told a story at the StorySlam about how her skills and status as a physician were tested when her brother was diagnosed with cancer. “Trying to be all things to all people all the time is not something that’s easily navigated,” she said, closing her story with the realization that she couldn’t be both a loving sister and her brother’s medical advisor simultaneously, and what her brother needed most from her was love and support.

Sandoval told a story about how she changed from “a ‘Charlie’s Angel’ to a ‘Golden Girl’” when she was a third-year resident. Working with two other female residents in the medical intensive care unit, she felt confident and cool, like one of the three crime-fighting women in the television drama, until she witnessed a young man die very quickly. “We couldn’t save him. That’s not what’s supposed to happen,” she told the audience. “We couldn’t get past the fact that we couldn’t save this young man. It changed the way that I approached every room I entered, every patient I saw … It taught me humility … It taught me to be a ‘Golden Girl,’” she said, referring to the TV comedy series about sassy elder women who share a home, and made her realize that the most treasured part of that rotation was the two other women she worked with.

Audience members were prompted to share their own brief stories written on slips of paper and read aloud by Schmidt. In response to the prompt, “Tell us about a time you had gratitude for a lesson you weren’t sure you wanted to learn,” one person wrote: “Realizing how isolating medical school is and figuring out how to navigate it with therapy and leaning into my support system.” Another wrote: “I’m grateful for precautionary tales to avoid wearing dangly jewelry at the bedside.”

The event wrapped up with Lewis First, M.D., professor and chair of pediatrics and chief of pediatrics at UVM Children's Hospital, describing three different types of humbling moments during his career: A “horrifying” humbling moment in his early residency, when he made a child experience unnecessary pain by trying to relocate what he overconfidently thought was a dislocated elbow when the problem was actually a broken arm; A “stupid” humbling moment when, as an early faculty member in the emergency department, First administered the appropriate medication to a child experiencing  an epileptic seizure (a treatment he had administered numerous times successfully) before getting the child’s medical history, which revealed the patient’s allergy to that medication, resulting in a serious allergic reaction; and a “gratifying” humbling moment, when his granddaughter was born with life-threatening breathing difficulties and the team caring for her said, “We got this, be the grandfather and not the chief of pediatrics.” First concluded by saying “What I hope for all of you is that, whether you are the health care professional, or the patient being cared for, your humbling moments are not horrifying, that they are not stupid, but that they are gratifying—which is the best kind of humbling moment to have."


Two people standing next to a sink, one washing a sweet potato, the other holding a bowl of washed sweet potatoes, both smiling at the camera and giving a

Marie Sandoval, M.D., told a story from her experience as a third-year resident. (Photo: David Seaver)

Sponsors of StorySlamRx include the Larner Wellness Committee, Medical Student Council, Alumni and Development Office, Office of Medical Education, and Office of Medical Communications. Director of Student Well-Being Lee Rosen, Ph.D., provided a welcome at the event, which also featured music performed by Larner Chief Information Officer Steve Goldman, and Professor of Psychological Sciences Jom Hammack, Ph.D.