Minneapolis Resident Is Part of a Growing Group of People Finding Their Own Path to Healing

Michael on the banks of the Mississippi in this photo from the How We Heal project. Bottom right: Michael and his wife in a photo from the same series. One of the photos on Michael’s CaringBridge page documenting his journey. (Top right photo Copyright Jennifer Larson)

We are all made up of stories. Every bone, cell, blink and moment. They keep our history alive, have the ability to shape our futures and for a growing group
of people, stories can offer healing in uncertain times of illness.

About two years ago, Minneapolis resident Michael Bischoff was diagnosed with brain cancer. When he finished his medical treatment, the prognosis was still bad, but “I knew that I still wanted to do things for my treatment,” Bischoff says. Part of this treatment came in the form of telling his story. “The first day I found out I had a brain tumor I started a CaringBridge page,” he says. “I did not want to feel isolated, so I started writing about what it was like to have brain cancer.” Bischoff explains that telling his story helped him to shift his focus from fear to “the love and support I had around me,” he says. CaringBridge has become a community of sorts for Bischoff—a place for him to share updates on his health, healing and life, and a place for others to stay updated on his journey.  

After all of the support Bischoff gained from CaringBridge, he went on to be part of a nine-minute film created by the organization titled How We Heal in celebration of its 20th anniversary. CaringBridge created the How We Heal campaign and the short film as a way for people to share their unique stories of healing. “The magic of our platform is not our own story,” says CaringBridge CEO Liwanag Ojala. “So we invited families to share their healing stories.” Caring Bridge partnered with a National Geographic photographer to help tell these stories, and through the process, “we realized that there were so many people who were wanting this information,” she says. “So many people saw themselves in the stories that we shared.” To both Ojala and Bischoff, healing is more than a clean bill of health. “Health outcomes and wellness are very different from healing,” says Ojala. “I learned quite a bit about how people find healing at a very individualized level.”
Bischoff has continued to share his story, and he has also found healing in helping others tell their stories. He began holding story sessions at Pathways in Uptown Minneapolis, an organization that provides holistic approaches to medicine—free of charge—to those suffering from illness and their caregivers. “Before the gathering there’s two storytellers identified—often one person who has a serious illness or has a family member with a serious illness, and a care provider [such as a doctor],” Bischoff says of the story sessions. “The patient and the doctor [then] take turns telling their story for 15 minutes.”

Pathways executive director Tim Thorpe also believes in the healing power of stories. “In our programs here, we don’t mandate but we encourage people to tell their stories,” Thorpe says. He explains that Pathways is different from many organizations in that they work alongside people to help them heal—never leading them. This is a way for participants to take ownership of their own healing. “Peeling back these layers, they uncover things that help them heal,” says Thorpe of the storytelling sessions. And it’s more than just the act of storytelling—these sessions offer up another important component in healing: community. “It’s giving people a chance to feel like they’re part of a greater whole,” Thorpe says. He explains that both active and silent participants in the storytelling sessions can gain a form of healing. A silent participant might learn something valuable from listening to the stories of others, and an active participant might be satisfying the need to release. And with everyone gaining something different from the session, Thorpe again highlights the importance of community. “This really gets back to the notion of community as healer,” he says. “Community is [often] the first step in healing.”  

“A story is the shortest distance between people,” says Bischoff. Over the last couple of years, Bischoff has listened to a multitude of stories from others in the community, and although every story is different, he notes the similarities that can be found in stories, the connections that can be built. “Quality social connections have strong health benefits,” he says.

Telling his story has also helped Bischoff to see and express gratitude, and he explains that there has been quite a bit of research done that finds this can have health benefits. “It helps me see a bigger purpose in my life, which has health benefits both physically and mentally.”  

Nature, a place where Bischoff has always found solace, has been another part of his healing plan. “I first moved to Minneapolis 24 years ago,” he says. “At the end of the day I would go swimming at what’s now Bde Maka Ska.” When Bischoff was first diagnosed, he turned again toward water. “One thing I did was I decided I needed my own prescription—I decided every day I would spend an hour at the river or the lake,” he says. “I’m very grateful for the river and the lakes as my primary healer.”

This act of spending time in nature is called Forest Bathing, a practice that started in Japan. “It’s the idea that if you immerse yourself in beautiful places—the sights, the sounds—it’s healing.” For the How We Heal campaign, a photographer joined Bischoff on one of his trips to the river and sat with him, taking photos.
Stories and nature have been two major aspects in Bischoff’s healing journey, and others who participated in the How We Heal campaign have their own unique take on healing—from spending time with animal companions to music to staying true to their style throughout treatment and celebrating every day. The stories that speckle the nine-minute film highlight the strength of those battling serious illness and their caregivers. Bischoff’s strength s evident in how he talks about his healing journey on the How We Heal site: “I don’t want to measure the miracle by how long I live, but by how much nature, art and community bring us closer to living life abundantly and freely,” he says.

How We Heal seems to highlight similarities and differences in people all at once. Every story is different but the resilience seems to bubble up from deep inside each participant. Their voices are strong and sure. They have chosen to heal.  

CaringBridge How We Heal campaign
Visit CaringBridge to watch the How We Heal film or read more about Bischoff and other participants. To donate to CaringBridge or set up your own CaringBridge page for yourself of a loved one, visit caringbridge.org

You can donate or sign up to volunteer at Pathways by visiting their website. You can also sign up for programs or classes free of charge.