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The Campbell Family Narrative Medicine Fund – Dr. Bruce Campbell’s Legacy

Although people have sought meaning and healing through stories for thousands of years, the study of narrative medicine was in its infancy when Bruce Campbell, MD, professor in the Department of Otolaryngology and Communications Sciences and the Institute for Health and Equity (Bioethics and Medical Humanities) at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), was in school.

“As a first-year medical student, I entered an essay contest about the value of the humanities in medical education,” says Dr. Campbell. “I didn’t win the contest, but it piqued my interest in how writing stories and reading literature might make me a better doctor.” Now, retired from his clinic practice, Dr. Campbell, his wife, Kathi, and their family have created the Campbell Family Narrative Medicine Fund to expand narrative medicine’s benefits to the MCW community.

After graduating from Purdue University and Rush Medical College, Dr. Campbell completed his otolaryngology residency at MCW and a Head and Neck Surgery Fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Finding joy and healing while writing and caring for patients has been a part of his journey since the beginning. He connected with humanities-focused courses in school and, as a medical student and resident, was inspired by physician-writers including Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, William Osler, Anton Chekov, William Carlos Williams, Loyal Davis, Dr. X and Stephen Bergman.

“These people found time to share what they had learned as physicians,” Dr. Campbell notes, “and the stories they told slowly revealed to me that a physician’s true calling is to be an active listener who passionately accompanies patients through their suffering.” He shared stories on the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin website for two decades, reflecting on what he had learned and connecting with colleagues, patients and families.

As Dr. Campbell engaged with others in the field, he enrolled in a course taught by the founders of the Division of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University in New York City, hoping to bring what he learned back to MCW. “The goal of narrative medicine is to expose caregivers to writing and group discussion after the ‘close reading’ of pieces of literature, poetry, artwork or music,” he explains. “The repeated experience of careful attention to the creative arts instills a similar, reflexive appreciation of each patient’s story. The caregiver is driven to discern how illness fits within the larger context of a person’s life and makes them intent to serve as the patient’s advocate.”

For Dr. Campbell, inspiring people to recognize and react to patients’ stories requires faculty, student and staff experts and advocates. He hopes the Campbell Family Narrative Medicine Fund will help build a critical mass of people who “see the intrinsic value of normalizing narrative competence.”

As noted by Adina Kalet, MD, MPH, director of the Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Institute for the Transformation of Medical Education at MCW, Dr. Campbell was working to weave the concept of narrative medicine into the fabric of MCW’s curriculum long before the creation of the fund. For one, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced clinical and foundational science faculty to reconsider their approach to health care and education, Dr. Campbell helped students develop a virtual MedMoth, a semiannual evening storytelling experience.

These events serve as spaces where faculty, staff, residents and students share their personal experiences. Dr. Kalet recalls the ways in which Dr. Campbell would “work with students and faculty who wanted to tell their stories and help them refine them into solid narratives.” They also teamed with others to create the Transformational Times, a weekly Kern newsletter that “has helped people navigate and understand what was going on through the context of narrative medicine.” Since, they have published two volumes of selected essays and will be launching the MCW Kern Institute Press.

Dr. Kalet acknowledges that the Campbell Family Narrative Medicine Fund is an opportunity for other faculty to “be better at understanding the complex human experience of health and illness” and begs the question, “If we were going to start over again, how would we do this?” Dr. Campbell and his family trust the university, his remarkable peers and MCW’s leaders to share their vision.

There will be challenges. Many students come from educational backgrounds that are science-heavy, and humanities experiences are not a priority within time-limited medical school curricula. Nevertheless, Dr. Campbell has found that even left-brained students appreciate the opportunities to experience narrative medicine. “Student evaluations always include comments that they were really surprised at how much they benefited from reading and reflection,” he shares. “They want more of these experiences if thoughtfully crafted and coordinated across the curriculum and through residency programs.” In the long run, he believes a successful narrative medicine program will offer patients better care by caregivers who take better care of themselves.

Dr. Campbell hopes that the fund will attract other donors who see the value of creating a health care workforce with narrative competence and the ability to hear and respond to the stories of those who are suffering. If you would like to honor Dr. Campbell’s legacy and support the Campbell Family Narrative Medicine Fund, please contact Hailey Hennessy, director of development, at hhennessy@mcw.edu.

To learn more about Dr. Campbell’s career, from working as a hospital nursing assistant to his retirement, check out his book, A Fullness of Uncertain Significance: Stories of Surgery, Clarity, & Grace (Ten16 Press, Waukesha WI, 2021) and visit his website.

– Sonja Niederhofer