2017 Heroes Update: Sara Lynne Wright AB '09

2017 Harvardwood Hero Sara Lynne Wright AB '09 volunteers with Living History, a UCLA Student Volunteer Program at UCLA Medical Centers, by interviewing long-term patients and writing one-page biographies for their medical files to help doctors care for them as people rather than only as medical cases.

Thanks to the Harvardwood Heroes grant, the Living History Program at UCLA was able to provide its volunteers with better tools to write up one page biographies of patients in the palliative care, geriatrics, oncology and med-surg units at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. Those biographies have not only helped treatment teams get to know their patients as people rather than only as medical cases but also provided each patient with a valuable keepsake: a written life story to share with their families and whomever they like.

Specifically, the grant has been used to used to buy laminating supplies, color toner for the printer and stationery that made the bios more visually appealing and mood-lifting. These tools may seem small, but the presentation of biographies to patients makes a big difference in how much these biographies bolster patients in their recovery or strengthen them in their times of suffering. A laminated version of one’s life story can serve as a reaffirmation of one’s life.

Many challenges occur with inpatient treatment in a hospital, but among the most pervasive are loneliness and depression. A volunteer who listens attentively and asks questions about the most memorable times in a patient’s life – not only about physical ailments, past medical history and current problems – can benefit a patient’s health and motivation in ways medication cannot.

For example, a man who refused to do physical therapy exercises because he was so depressed he didn’t see the point of them anymore opened up to a Living History volunteer, remembered the high points in his life, and felt motivation to do it again.

This sort of listening, this sort of understanding of a patient’s life story, is an example of the difference between curing and healing. Curing a physical problem is one hurdle; healing the patient as a person from the experiences they have been through is yet another. The latter is a far more formidable task. Curing involves only physical treatment. Healing involves understanding the patient’s values and what makes the patient’s life worth living. Living History biographies aid providers in not only healing but also curing their patients....

The most important resource the program needs to do its work is the volunteers, but the lasting impact of what the volunteers do occurs through the physical write-ups. The lovely new stationery, as well as the high-quality lamination and printing, make a big difference in the quality of the write-ups given to the patients. These biographies are brought home by the patients, kept as keepsakes by the patient’s family members, and become part of the patient’s legacy. UCLA Medical Center Volunteer Services deeply appreciates the Harvardwood Heroes grant, which has provided the physical resources necessary to create these high-quality biographies. The staff plans to do its best to continue making the type of positive changes it has enabled.

Sara Lynne interviews and writes for a program called Living History, part of the UCLA Student Volunteer Program at UCLA Medical Centers in Santa Monica and Westwood, that beautifully bridges the art of storytelling and the practice of medicine. She interviews long-term patients, usually in geriatrics or oncology, providing them with company and an opportunity to focus on something other than their illness or injury. She then writes one-page biographies of the patients that go in their medical files and help their doctors care for them as people rather than only as medical cases. "I've seen firsthand the huge difference this program makes in the lives of those who participate. I see an immediate change in the moods of the patients who are interviewed. One woman asked if she could use the biography I had written of her as her obituary, because her son didn’t know any of those facts about her. I'm so grateful for this grant, which can provide higher quality patterned paper and laminating sheets for the finished biographies as well as stipends as incentives for good writers to spend their time with the program."

In Spring 2017, we awarded four $500 grants through the annual Harvardwood Heroes program in recognition of Harvard alumni performing outstanding work at the intersection of the arts and service. This Thanksgiving weekend, we're catching up with the 2017 Heroes to share their program updates with the Harvardwood community and to express our gratitude for their inspiring impact on their communities.

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