The Family Story Project at Ronald McDonald House in Durham

by Perry Dinardo

Though the Family Story Project, a Duke student collaborates with a family at the Ronald McDonald House in Durham.

Though the Family Story Project, a Duke student collaborates with a family at the Ronald McDonald House in Durham.

At over 350 locations worldwide, the Ronald McDonald House gives families a comfortable place to stay while their children receive medical treatment. With support from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, Duke University undergraduates on the pre-health track have the opportunity to deepen their connection to the families staying at Ronald McDonald House of Durham (RMHD) through a unique program.

The Family Story Project (FSP) was developed by Duke Professor Denise Comer, PhD. “The project is founded on the premise that telling, sharing, writing, and reading personal narratives can be healing for these families and transformative for the students who work with them,” she explains.

Approximately 10 students per year meet monthly with RMHD families to create feature narratives and photographic portraits about the experience of supporting and caring for their child. The stories undergo an extensive drafting and revision process to perfect tone, perspective, and clarity.  To promote further learning and mentorship, the project also pairs the undergraduates with Duke medical or nursing students to discuss the story drafts, the medical conditions portrayed within the stories, and the broader importance of narrative in healthcare.

Each year of the project culminates in the creation of a booklet of stories and photographs distributed to the children and families involved.  RMHD families have expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to share their stories and in some cases, have maintained the relationships they cultivated with the students beyond the course of the project.

For undergraduate participants, the program has been inspiring and often transformative. One student commented “While our premedical courses may teach us the pathology of illness, what they cannot teach us is that from the patient’s point of view, illness is not about understanding pathology. It is about how the illness affects the patient’s and family’s lives, what sacrifices the patient has had to make, what new perspectives the patient has acquired as a result of it, and how the patient and family cope with it.” Another student adapted the concept of the Family Story Project to an independent summer project in Bolivia and others have gone on to contribute regularly to medical school publications.

Professor Comer continues to plan for further expansion of the Family Story Program, including a trip to New York City to learn from experts at medical humanism centers at Mount Sinai and Columbia. She speaks eloquently about the effect she hopes FSP will have: “The students who participate in FSP undergo a formative experience designed to strengthen the medical care they will provide to patients throughout their lifetimes.”

To learn more about the Family Story Project and Ronald McDonald House of Durham, and to read some of the narratives developed for the project, please visit

Photo of blog post author Perry DinardoPerry Dinardo is a 2014 graduate of Duke University, an employee at Boston Children’s Hospital and a Research Intern at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation Research Institute.  She plans to attend medical school in the future and is excited to contribute to the Gold Foundation’s work.