Fight or Flight Into Health: “S” and Cancer

by Tuly Flint.

“Go away!” he screamed. “You are being a bad boy! You won’t get any present from me with this crying!” As I entered his room, I was barraged with shrieks from “S,” a four-and-a-half-year-old boy staying in our children’s oncology department.

I work as both a social worker and performing storyteller in the Children’s Oncology Department in Tel Hashomer Hospital, Ramat-Gan, Israel.

Earlier that day, I was approached by a staff member who confided, “A new boy has arrived who was diagnosed a few days ago. We are having trouble getting him to co-operate with us and he has to get his medicine on time. It is a matter of life and death!”

Hearing S’s screams told me many parts of his story: I could tell this was one boy who would not be bribed into co-operating. Too often the medical staffs chosen tactic is to tell the children, especially young children, “Cooperate with us, take your medicine on time and you will get ….” Most children will work with us knowing that we do our best and they will wait for the secondary benefit after harsh procedures – a present or a treat. S was not about to let them trick him into this. He was fighting against everyone: parents, sister, grand parents.

Every time the nurses tried to give him his medicine, he would start a new temper tantrum, lying on the floor, screaming, spitting, hitting and cursing. The situation developed until eventually, giving S his medicines would require five people – four to hold him down on his bed and the fifth to force feed him medicine or hold back his hands from tearing all the tubes and needles from his arms. S’s life was in great danger, not only because of his cancer, but also because of his behavior. Other children that had time were already leaving to have their treatment at home, but not S. He wouldn’t consider taking medicine at home, and his parents told us that between the two of them, they would not be able to control him to give him his medicine on time.

Nurses and doctors were avoiding entering his room because of the shouting from inside and, as they later told me, because they were embarrassed to look at him after they had helped to hold him down.

I was asked to come and help. After that first meeting I was sure that if I was to help S,then it was forbidden for me to take any part in the process of forcing him to take his medicine. S and the caregivers were caught in a loop and, unless care was taken, I would be, too.

I listened to the staff and to S, looking for the Story that would lead me understanding. I always look for several views of stories when I work with people:

•  What is their story right now?
•  How would they talk about this experience if they tell the story later on?
•  What tale would bring some new understanding or comfort in the struggle?

When I spoke with staff, I mostly heard shock and feelings of failure. They were also angry with S. “How can he do this to us?”
“Doesn’t he understand that we are trying to save him?”
“Doesn’t he want to go home?”
And even “What’s his story? We never met such an ungrateful boy.”

S’s parents were helplessly caught between their son and the staff. They were angry at everyone, especially themselves. They were miserable and blamed themselves for not properly preparing their child for the hospital.

Between medicine-giving sessions, S was a pleasant boy, playing and talking with me and even with the same doctors he fought with an hour before.

His cries were mostly:

“Go away.”
“I am not your kid.”
“I don’t want to be your child.”
“I don’t want to go home.”
“I don’t want any present!”
and “I don’t want to play.” The phrase that stood out in my mind was when S screamed that the medicines were bitter and tasted awful – which is true!

I started meeting with S in-between these struggles and watched closely when he played. His favorite pastime was taking action figures of heroes that came in specific games and he hid the figurines from one game inside another game. He was fascinated with moving things around the room from their natural places. Watching this play gave me the final understanding. This was a case of narrative war!

Narrative war is when one side’s story is so different from the other that they can’t talk with each other. I understood that S’s story of the hospital and what he called “hospital time” and the staffs story were so far apart that they could not and would not work together:

The staff’s story was:
“We are the angels in white.”
“We save kids here.”
“We are the good guys and we fight together with the child to win the battle.”

S’s inner story was played out numerous times in the therapy sessions:
“I was kidnapped and removed from my home and I am forced against my will, by these people who poke me with needles, to eat disgusting things.”

A new story was needed to bridge the gap and it was needed soon. Staff and family were wearing thin and giving up on S.

I looked for a story that would help S get his treatment. First came to mind all the abducting or kidnapping stories that we all know (Rapunzel, Blue Beard, etc.). But, in all those stories help came from outside. Someone else rescues the hero. S had to rescue himself or at least allow us help him.

Then came to mind the story of a mother who rescued her baby from an eagle. She climbed up the cliffs and took him back. What if this eagle was good? How would the baby know that? I began thinking of all the stories where characters were offered help and refused. (Often it is the brother or sister of the hero who offers this help. The Golden Bird is an example.) I wrote a story for S and told him the story before bed, right after one of his medicine taking session. I told him, “Today I’d like to tell you a story I wrote just for you. Do you want to hear it?”

S was excited. “Is the hero’s name like my name?” I said that was up to him, and he decided against this and chose a different name instead.

Once there was a boy. (S gave the boy a name.) He was playing in his parents’ yard when a large, all-white eagle with huge wings and talons swooped down and grabbed the boy and lifted him up into the sky. Higher and higher they flew until they reached a very steep cliff. There, the eagle dropped the boy into it’s great nest with his fledglings and flew away.

The boy was so frightened. He tried to look down but he was afraid he would fall and the wind was blowing hard at this height. The eagle chicks blinked at him from the other side of the nest. They had their feathers to keep them warm from the cold wind and did not suffer like the boy. Three hours later, the eagle came back carrying a dead animal in his talons. He put the animal in the nest and began tearing pieces from the carcass. After a few minutes, the eagle started vomiting the meat. The chicks in the nest all ran towards the meat and ate it.

The boy looked disgustedly at the gross food and turned away from it. The next day’ the same thing happened. The chicks ate and the boy did not. After a few more days,the boy became so very hungry. He turned to the nearest chick and asked, “Do you ever get any other kind of food?”

“No, “ the chick answered. “This is our food.

“How can you stand this?” said the boy, “It is disgusting!”

“You are right,“ answered the nearest chick, “but what can we do? We are waiting for when we are stronger and our wings grow longer. Then we will be able to fly and find our own food. ” The nearest chick added, “I think I’ll become vegetarian.“

The boy looked at the pile of food and said, “I’ll never eat this.”

As time went by, the chicks grew bigger and stronger. Their feathers grew longer and one day the nest was nearly emptied as the young eagles all flew away. The boy could see them far off in the distance, sailing through the sky. The eagle kept on bringing food to the nest.

One day, the boy turned to the eagle and asked, “Why do you bring me this. I hate what you bring me. I am not going to eat this!!”

The eagle just stared at him.

“I want to go home. Why can’t I go home?”

The Eagle replied, “You can climb down if you wish.“

“I am afraid I’ll fall. I am not as strong as you are,” said the boy.

“So you will have to eat and then you’ll be stronger’ “ said the white eagle.

“I can’t eat this. It is disgusting!” said the boy.

“I am sorry you don’t like this, but I am an eagle, and this is what I can bring you. If you want to climb down to your parents, you’ll have to eat.”

S asked me, “Is that the end?”


“Did he climb down?” asked S.

“I don’t know,” I told him.

The nest day, S asked me to tell him the story again. He told the story to the nurses, other staff and even to his parents. Two days later, S said to his mother, “I want to grow up.” She ran out of his room crying, and came back with his father and some of the staff. “S said he wants to have his medicine because he wants to fly.” With doctor’s permission, we built a nest in S’s room on his bed, and he climbed into it any time he wanted. He told and retold the story many times. His parents built a nest in his room at home, with eagles hanging overhead on a mobile. S took all his medicine after that with almost no problems. He would sit in his nest to take the medicine and then climb down to play. He only became upset when the nurses took blood samples, but even this behavior was so scaled down, it could not compare to the problems of earlier days.

Two months later when S came for a session, we ended the story. You will have to guess the end. Now, a year and a half later, S is on his way to recovery. S’s story taught me much about listening to narrative wars and building bridges through story. I’d like to thank S and S’s family for letting me work with them and tell you this story. You are all invited to tell this story, change it and play with it.

A story can take you into anywhere and out of almost everything.

This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Tuly Flint was born and raised in Israel and is now a storyteller, social worker, group therapist and organizational counselor who performs to all ages and uses stories in all arenas. He lives with his wife Sigal and daughters, Mica and Avigail.

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