Veterans Tell Their Stories

By Erika Janik | April 1, 2015


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Pressed for time, doctors often have little time to spend getting to know their patients. An innovative program at the VA hospital in Madison lets veterans share their stories with their doctors.

Thor Ringler is a writer and therapist with the Madison VA, who spends his days listening to patients tell their stories.

“We get a list of patients every morning and go to each room and ask if people want to participate,” says Ringler. “It’s very on the spot and impromptu.”

More than half of the patients say yes, a number that surprised Ringler. He thinks that many agree because there’s not much to do in the hospital so patients have time. 

“We give them our undivided attention. They talk, we listen and record whatever they want to tell us,” says Ringler.

Most sessions begin with Ringler asking where the patient wants to begin. Ringler records the interviews and takes notes. Each session lasts about an hour. Once he’s written up the story, he shares the story with the patient to review before it’s placed in their medical chart for doctors and nurses. 

Doctors have been very supportive of the program. Some doctors entered the room during a session and rather than interrupt Ringler, they say they will come back because the recording is more important. 

“They have told us that it reminds them why they went into medicine in the first place,” says Ringler. “It’s the human connection.”

That human connection has touched Ringler as well. Ringler began his career as a poet, teaching and writing. After going back to school for a degree in therapy, he decided to work with veterans as a challenge for himself. He had no personal or family connection to veterans. But he soon found himself falling in love with veterans and felt an affinity for their service to others. 

“I spent so much of my life trying to be a writer, trying to be published and be a famous poet,” explains Ringler. “It’s a gift to be able to use my talent for writing to help others share their experience.”




Erika Janik

Erika Janik

Erika Janik is the co-creator and former executive director of Wisconsin Life. She is the author of six books, including Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, Apple: A Global History, and  Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. She’s currently the executive...

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