Alumna Shares Stories and Empowerment

Annie Brewster broadcasts narratives to unite people on common experiences

Alumna+Shares+Stories+and+Empowerment

Darius Sinha, Off Campus Editor

“Possibility, self-empowerment, and courage” are the three words Annie Brewster ’86 P ’23 ’25 used to describe the topic of her new book– written in partnership with journalist Rachel Zimmerman–titled “The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma, and Loss.”

Assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Practicing Internal Medicine Physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Annie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001. She used her experiences as a patient to write about the therapeutic powers of storytelling, she said.

Released in February 2022, the book was published by North Atlantic Books 12 years after Annie started collecting patient narratives.

“I felt that the system was broken,” Annie said. “What’s missing is time and space for true connection between patients and providers by connecting with patients and listening to their stories and knowing them as human beings.”

After her diagnosis in 2001, Annie found herself looking for others who were navigating their lives after being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

“I couldn’t find many [stories] that weren’t just media sound bites. I wanted more authentic narratives. That’s what motivated me then to start collecting stories of other patients,” she said.

Annie was trained by a friend in radio. She purchased audio recording equipment, and she started collecting stories. She then worked with Boston University Radio (WBUR) to share those stories.

After realizing the empowering effects of sharing stories through the reviews and responses she received from podcast listeners, Annie started a non-profit, the Health Stories Collaborative, in 2013. The non- profit describes its mission as: “By collecting, honoring, and sharing stories of illness and healing, we strive to make the process of navigating illness less isolating and to empower individuals and families facing health challenges.”

“Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis rocked my world,” Annie said. “I basically had an identity crisis. It took me a long time to accept my diagnosis, to integrate it into my life, and ultimately it was storytelling that helped me to do this—sharing my own story over time and also helping others to share their stories, through my work at Health Story Collaborative.”

After starting her nonprofit, an agent approached Annie about turning those stories into a book, which pushed her to start the process, she said.

“In this day and age, it’s hard to find an agent so I thought to myself ‘I better say yes.’”

As Annie’s former editor at WBUR, Rachel stepped in to help Annie write the book proposal and provide edits throughout the writing process.

The focus of Annie’s book is chronic illnesses, which impact six in 10 adults and over 40% of school-age children, the Centers for Disease Control states. Annie said she hopes her two teenage children, Jamie Weyerhaeuser ’23 and Hannah Weyerhaeuser ’25, will learn the skills of empowerment she talks about in her book.

“I think there needs to be more forums for storytelling where, if it’s done in a safe, contained way, it can really be empowering to the storyteller as well as the audience,” Annie said. “It can help build community because it draws everyone together when somebody is brave enough to share something vulnerable and it teaches everybody about things you might not have thought about before.”

Director of Student Support Services Kim Gold works with multiple teams across campuses including teams for counseling, learning support, and nursing. She said she shares Annie’s belief that stories can heal and sees the power of stories through her work at the school.

“It’s about the narrative and the story for that person,” she said. “It really comes from a student-centered and family-centered perspective to identify what their goals are and from that tap into our nursing supports, learning and counseling supports as well as their teachers and advisors to support them at the school.”

Looking forward, Ms. Gold hopes to use the ideas in Annie’s book to expand the school’s approach to offer a more holistic support plan to help students and families reach their individual goals, she said.

Jamie said he echoes his mother’s emphasis on the benefits of storytelling and can see how storytelling would improve the school culture.

“It’s putting more awareness around stories and being more of an open place,” Jamie said. “School is a stressful place, and it’s often about schoolwork. But I think at some point we have to focus more on mental health and giving people a safe space to talk about it if they want.”

Jamie also emphasized his mother’s work ethic and dedication to her book, which makes this accomplishment even more significant, he said.

“She never lets anything faze her,” Jamie said. “She would work 10 or 12 hours and then come home and ask us how our days were. She’s one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met.”

“I know how much she really wanted to write a book and how hard she worked,” Hannah said. “Seeing her come out with the finished product and seeing it be successful makes me really, really proud of her.”