Class of 2021: Twins combine passions for literature, science in emerging area of narrative medicine

Identical twins Jade and Jazmyn Ayers have immersed themselves in literature and personal narratives for years. Not only has it led each to major in English, it also has spurred them to come up with a creative way to pair storytelling with another of their passions: medicine.

Jade and Jazmyn Ayers, Class of 2021 (photo by John Russell, Vanderbilt)

The sisters, who are also majoring in medicine, health and society, are applying to medical school with a focus in the burgeoning interdisciplinary study of narrative medicine, which employs creative skills from the humanities to enable caregivers to help patients voice their experiences with health issues more clearly.

“Our work through our English major is helping build critical thinking and analysis as well as empathy and care for people and their stories,” Jazmyn said. “I think a lot of times the doctor-patient relationship can get lost in translation in medical terms, with so much focus on science that you kind of forget about people.”

The sisters, who are from Grand Ledge, Michigan, believe figurative language and storytelling can bridge serious divides in doctor-patient communication as well as cultural and socioeconomic differences.

“How do we help patients describe and understand their experiences with physical and emotional pain or illness?” Jade asked. “How do we use metaphors and imagery to talk about treatment?”

Honors projects

The Ayers sisters ask these and other questions in their honors thesis projects. Jazmyn’s research focuses on using figurative language in medicine. Where doctors often conceptualize sickness through evidence-based medicine, most people communicate pain or illness through personal narratives.

“How do we help patients describe and understand their experiences with physical and emotional pain or illness? How do we use metaphors and imagery to talk about treatment?”

Jade Ayers

“Through narratives, sickness is reality instead of merely a condition of reality,” Jazmyn writes in her thesis.

Meanwhile, Jade’s thesis looks at various pieces of literature that showcase mental illness. She is particularly interested in the idea of characters with mental illness being “unreliable narrators” in their own stories, and examines how often readers engage in “a private exchange, where the narrator is able to challenge the assumptions put forth by the conventions of unreliability that otherwise limit the believability and significance of their perspective.”

Giving support

Along with working in various research labs, the twins volunteer at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. They’ve also helped lead Vanderbilt’s chapter of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life for four years and are members of the Vanderbilt Emergency Medical Society, which partners with Vanderbilt LifeFlight to train undergraduates as certified emergency responders.

Both sisters say being resident advisers in separate residence halls during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed them to hone their communication and listening skills to help keep their residents’ experiences as safe and positive as possible.

“Being a support system for first-year students on campus has been really cool,” Jade said. “This year is certainly strange with COVID, but I think it’s incredibly rewarding because I have a hand in helping these freshmen build their first experiences on campus.”

The Ayers sisters hope their experience through the pandemic will strengthen their futures as health practitioners because they’ve learned to be even more receptive and empathetic to new perspectives.

“We’re all dealing with so much,” Jazmyn said. “It’s time for us to really listen to each other’s stories.”

This profile is part of a series of stories and videos highlighting undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2021.