I didn’t get a free write done this week but did attend the launch party for the 2017 Till Chapbook. This local organization supports writers, builds community and hosts a writing residency at Smoke Farm each summer. Last June I attended the residency and spent several days reading books on craft, floating down the Stillaguamish River, attending workshops by the likes of the Jane Wong and Claudia Castro Luna, ate homemade fare by our fabulous chef and wrote, among other things, my first published poem Instead, which you can find in the 2017 Till Chapbook. I’m grateful for the talented writers I met and enjoyed hearing several of them read their work at the release party this week. Here’s to Till and the writerly community they cultivate.
Abby Caplin’s “County Hospital Residents” profiles immigrant physicians, re-training in an American residency program. Caplin’s poem begins with the more general–where a physician is from–and contracts into the more intimate details, the sequence of events that brought this person into this profession far from home.
Writing Prompt: Have you encountered an immigrant physician as a patient or through your own medical training? What was their story? Imagine leaving your home country to practice medicine and live your life elsewhere. What would be the greatest challenge? What does the diversity and experience of immigrant physicians bring to our medical community? Write for 10 minutes.
When rotating through the Intensive Care Unit in medical school or residency, one of the most significant skills learned, in addition to adjusting mechanical ventilation settings and how to run a code, is how to conduct a “family conference”. This is where loved ones, preferably including the patient’s designated medical decision proxy, gather to discuss the patient’s status, prognosis and treatment plan. As these patients are severely, sometimes suddenly, ill, these can be very challenging conversations.
In “Family Summons” Amy Cowan illustrates how she was surprised to have a patient’s family gather in the middle of the night, wanting to speak with her as their family patriarch’s physician. Her piece highlights how important it is to listen and extract the true identity of the patient, the life they lived beyond the ICU. Establishing this portrait can help inform the care team as well as free the family members to make decisions in line with what their loved one would want.
Writing Prompt: Have you ever attended or conducted an important medical family conference? How was it run? If not, can you imagine what questions you might ask to best get to know the patient? Think about if you were the patient in the ICU; who would you want to gather on your behalf and what might they say when asked about you and your life, what’s important to you? Write for ten minutes.
Starting the year off sharing some great news! I recently received in the mail the Fall 2016 Edition of OUHSC’s Blood and Thunder Journal, which includes two of my essays. I’ve had several pieces published in online journals but there is a special kind of excitement that comes from seeing your name in print on a tangible page. I’m humbled that two of my favorite shorts “Expectant” and “Burst” found a home in this narrative medicine collection.
“Expectant” chronicles the very first delivery I witnessed. Obstetrics was a revelation to me as a young medical student, especially never having had children myself. I was in awe of the entire process and this short essay reveals my own insecurities as I was christened into the world of medicine.
“Burst” is about my first continuity delivery in residency training: a pregnancy meant to be followed throughout all nine months to completion. I was a new physician and had much to learn about the unpredictable nature of obstetrics.
One of my writing goals for 2017 is to make significant progress on a book-length collection of narrative medicine essays. I’m starting the year off taking Creative Nonfiction’s online course “Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal”. Finding time to edit and submit my work has been a continual challenge but writing classes provide encouragement and structure to make the time, harness the energy and muster the gumption to keep at it. I’m eager to let go of the draining and perfectionist tendencies of 2016 and write on in 2017. Holding a palpable culmination of my writing efforts is an encouraging way to embark on a new year and I’m grateful.
She’s volunteering, decided what she wants to do. She catches the bus to the hospital from campus, heavy backpack weighing down her slight shoulders. She has a badge, a short powder blue jacket. She works in the playroom: coloring, washing toys, light streaming through the wall of windows as she stoops to read aloud a picture book or set up a seasonal craft on the low plastic tables. The children come in wheelchairs, heads bald or misshapen or shaved with intention. Tubes may be in their nares or arms. All of it is foreign and she doesn’t know how to act naturally so she smiles a lot, maybe too much. Sometimes she delivers a toy to a child confined to their own room: in isolation. Before entering she puts on a crinkly gown and a mask and latex free gloves, just as she was trained to do. She plays with the child, chats with the teen, tries to connect, but her own awkwardness and all the barriers for protection get in the way.
She’s in medical school, deciding what she wants to do. She rotates through the hospital, a shadow of a doctor in a short white coat, tagging along after her resident. Her pockets are weighed down with too much: laminated cards on how to run a pediatric code, a clipboard with preprinted index cards to keep track of each patient’s labs and history, black ball point pens to record chart notes, gum. She learns she always needs to have gum on hand. She walks the halls, familiar but transformed now she’s armed with some knowledge. She gets to know the palpable quiet of the hospital in the middle of the night. The ceilings here are low; everything is miniaturized to make children feel more comfortable, in this place where discomfort distinctively reigns.
She’s in residency, an MD after her name. She doesn’t wear a coat, but instead a black fleece vest with zippered pockets. Sometimes she’s mistaken for a nurse, but she still doesn’t wear the long white coat; it’s just not the way things are done. She monitors her patients and her medical students. She presents each case to the attending each morning at rounds. She knows what she wants to order in the cafeteria when it opens at 2 a.m. for all the providers who are there overnight on call. She’d rather sleep than eat, but that’s not the way things are done here. Residents review the progress of patients with the medical students, with each other, over the mid-night meal. The lights are turned down low and the children are in cribs and in isolation rooms and can’t breathe well or can’t eat well and most certainly won’t sleep well. The nurses page her and talk in quiet voices. Many patients get better and she discharges them. Some are known by all the staff and roam the halls with their IV poles like tiny emperors, because this place, this hospital, too, is their home.
She brings her infant, the youngest of her three, in to see the specialist. She parks in the newish garage built in the same place she used to catch the bus up the hill. She wheels her baby in the stroller. She waits in line to check in, gets an adhesive visitor’s badge with her picture and her child’s name. There’s a Starbucks downstairs now, in this new wing, but she doesn’t have time to stop for a latte. Her child is crying and she’s late. She wears a red raincoat, her pockets filled with the random items of a mother: a used tissue, a miniature toy construction truck, a purple hair clip, a binky, her smartphone. She’s anxious about seeing the specialist, about the prognosis and treatment plan. She has already texted her friend, the pediatrician, who made helpful recommendations, gave expert advice. She now has the luxury of giving and getting medical opinions in an instant, a byproduct of years of training and now experience as a practicing physician. She waits in the waiting room with other families. Some children read, some run, some sit in laps, some in motorized wheelchairs. Her child’s name is called and her baby is weighed, measured. She sees the physician. Her baby is prescribed medication, which she gets from the pharmacy. A girl waiting in line behind her talks animatedly about a book she wants to read. When she turns to check on her baby she can see the girl’s shaved head, the scar from surgery. So many children here so ill, so resilient. As a mother, she always feels grateful, feels guilty, in this place.