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Leighton Schreyer

Leighton Schreyer, a second year medical student, is heading to Oxford University after being selected for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Schreyer, who is part of the FitzGerald Academy in the MD Program at the University of Toronto, a partnership with Unity Health Toronto that supports undergraduate medical learners, is one of 11 Canadian students to be selected for the scholarship.

The Rhodes Scholarship is an international postgraduate award for students to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. It is the oldest graduate scholarship in the world and considered among the most prestigious.

Schreyer plans to combine their passions for storytelling and medicine by pursuing a DPhil in Anthropology at Oxford, specializing in medical anthropology. Their interests lie in the field of narrative medicine, which looks at the fundamental role story plays in health care and caregiving.

We spoke with Schreyer to learn more about narrative medicine and what led them to combine their passion for storytelling with medicine.

Q: How would you describe narrative medicine?

Schreyer: I like to think of narrative medicine as a movement to honor and restore the fundamental role story plays in health care and caregiving. It is an approach to medicine and medical practice that puts people first – a way to re-humanize health care.   

Every patient has their own unique story. Our success as physicians depends on our ability to truly listen to and engage with those stories. We must give patients the opportunity to tell their own stories and understand how their experience with their illness impacts the story of their life.

Too often single stories are told about people who have mental illness, for example, or those who are homeless, who use substances, who are racialized or part of a marginalized community. Those stories are incomplete – they create stereotypes and have been used to dispossess and disempower people. When we make space for many stories, on the other hand, they become empowering and humanizing forces.  

Q: What inspired your interest in studying narrative medicine?

Schreyer: Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the hospital, which gave me a unique perspective into medicine and what I experienced as a real lack of humanity. While it’s unfortunate that I had some pretty poor experiences at the hands of healthcare providers, that is ultimately also what motivated me to go into medicine—to become the kind of healthcare provider I needed as a child. While I love science and find it fascinating to learn about the pathophysiology of disease, I’m more drawn towards the human side of medicine and energized by engaging in the medical humanities. 

I do a lot of creative writing and poetry on my own, so when I learned about the field of narrative medicine I was thrilled about the potential to incorporate this passion into my career and just saw so much potential there.

Q: How do you think the study of narrative medicine can help to improve or make changes to the health care landscape we see today?

Schreyer: Many “negative” healthcare experiences patients have are characterized, in some way or another, by a lack of narrative competence and narrative humility on the part of the clinician and/or the healthcare system in which they operate. They are experiences where patients feel brushed off, unseen or unheard, or where they are disregarded or disrespected. They are experiences where a disease is treated without regard for the lived experience of illness and the complex social factors that shape that illness experience.

Western medicine remains rooted in a dominant biomedical paradigm that fails to take a wholistic approach to disease management and health promotion. I think that narrative medicine is one of many techniques to help us widen our lens and reorient our care around the person sitting in front of us.

That has invaluable benefits in improving health outcomes, the quality of care, improving patients’ trust in the healthcare system and reducing health disparities.

Q: What are your hopes for how this scholarship experience will impact your career in the future?

Schreyer: Right now, my long-term goal is to be a clinician scientist and I am leaning towards the field of psychiatry. I’m trying to keep my options open because I might change my mind!

I think that’s something I’ve learned through medical school. I entered medical school convinced I wanted to be a pediatrician. I didn’t even know narrative medicine was a thing and I wasn’t keen on pursuing research. Since then, my perspectives have widened so much and I have had the opportunity to try so many new things. I want to approach the Rhodes Scholarship with a very similar mindset.

I want to say “yes” to trying new things and, who knows, maybe I’ll find myself in a completely different place in four years than the one I am envisioning now, and that’s okay. I want to use this experience as an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and to challenge myself and grow, both personally and professionally. One of my biggest goals in life is to never stop learning and I have a feeling the Rhodes Scholarship will help me accomplish that.

By Danielle Pereira. Photo courtesy of Leighton Schreyer.