I wrote my first story when I was four. To be fair, I dictated it. My mother took down my words, printing them neatly across the squares of white paper that she had stapled together to make a book. She left plenty of space above for my crayoned illustrations. When we were done, I was sold: I wanted to be a writer.
Throughout most of my childhood and adolescence, my goal remained the same. But when someone I loved became gravely ill, I shifted my attention to a career in medicine. I wanted to heal people, yes, but when healing was no longer an option, I wanted to be there for comfort, for company, and to bear witness. In my preparations for medical school, writing fell away. It was something I looked back on as an enjoyable but frivolous pastime. Besides, I reasoned when the occasional creative itch arose, what would I write even about? How could I have anything significant to say?
And then I began to feel the void. Something was missing, something integral to who I was and what I needed in order to feel fulfilled. At the end of the semester of anatomy lab, my medical school classmates and I were assigned to write essays reflecting on the experience. As soon as I sat down at my laptop, the words began to pour out of me and didn’t stop. I wrote stories, essays, poems, little snippets of thoughts and observations that may never find their way into any finished piece but that felt so good to write down. And I began to feel whole again.
I also discovered that I was not alone in my combined passion for medicine and the written word. I scoured bookstores and the Internet for works by physician writers, a breed of folks brand new to me but in whom I immediately found idols and, to my amazement, understanding. In the words of one of my immediate favorites, Richard Selzer, “To take up a word, then lay it down again to choose another; to set this one down on the page as if it were a pebble and what is being made a mosaic, this is the greatest pleasure.”
Over time I have come to believe that writing is an asset to, rather than a distraction from, the practice of medicine. My attention to narratives helps me to bring thoughtful awareness to my patients’ stories and problems and to the task of solving them. It enhances my ability to communicate clearly with my patients and colleagues, and is a tool for reflection that allows me to maintain my own wellbeing.
So as I continue my training, I continue to write. Now I am choosing to share as I reflect on the challenges, frustrations, and joys inherent in the practice of medicine. And inherent in being human.