At the beginning of every high school physiology class, my teacher read an excerpt from Fourteen Stories: Doctors, Patients, and Other Strangers. That was the first time that I was introduced to the role of a physician-author. This spring, at NEOMED’s 36th William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition awards presentation and poetry readings, I met Jay Baruch, M.D., the author of Fourteen Stories and guest speaker for the program. Dr. Baruch is an associate professor of emergency medicine at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, where he is also the director of the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Scholarly Concentration.
After the event, I asked Dr. Baruch if there were differences in how he processes criticism of his writing versus criticism of his doctoring work. He said he didn’t think so; he believes that all criticism should be taken seriously. Even though a review of a novelist’s work may seem more subjective in nature than the comments an attending gives about a resident’s diagnosis, Dr. Baruch said this has not been the case in his experience: the criticism of his writing has been correct 98 percent of the time.
He also said that criticism should not be taken personally. Criticism can be difficult to process, but it does not stop Dr. Baruch from enjoying his career in both medicine and writing, because he has learned to separate himself from his work.
Reacquainted with a hobby
Through the busyness of cramming days and periods of low and high motivation in the earlier half of the year, my writing habit dwindled to jotting one-liner ideas in a journal. Self-reflection was squeezed out of the curriculum-regulated cycles of stress and catharsis.
The poetry event, however, has made me reconsider the place that the physician-author dream could have in my career and reminded me of the benefits of reflective writing. Such writing can promote better comprehension of the author’s own thoughts and the creation of solidarity among medical students and physicians who struggle with the dark emotions that accompany the experience of having to face death and sickness regularly. (Likewise, the miracles of medicine can also be celebrated through writing.)
Going forward, I hope that reflective writing helps me to fully appreciate the privileges that come with being a physician.
First-year College of Medicine student Katherine Wu contributed this article.