When people hear that Ruben J. Nazario, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in Lexington, writes in his spare time, they assume he writes for children. “But my writing is very non-pediatric,” he says. “I’m two people in one.”
A native of Puerto Rico, Dr. Nazario primarily writes poetry in English and stories in Spanish. His short stories and novels deal with what he calls “the fun stuff”: passion, violence, death.
For example, a speck of tomato sauce falling on the floor when his wife served him a plate of spaghetti became the inspiration for a story in which the same thing happens. But in his story, the characters argue and the husband licks up the sauce from the floor. “That part didn’t really happen,” he laughs.
One might imagine writing as merely a hobby or diversion for practicing hospitalists. But those who indulge in the craft say it hones their medical skills.
Ron Grant, MD, pediatric hospitalist at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson says writing affects his mood, which subsequently affects his practice. “It allows you to speak out [about] frustrations that arise, interesting situations that arise, and I find that very valuable,” he says.
The therapeutic experience is common to hospitalist writers.
Sandi Verbin, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook, Pa., says writing brings out her sense of humor, which helps with everything in medical practice. “Fortunately, with pediatrics, most of our patients get better,” she says.
But of course that’s not always the case. When a 7-year-old patient, who was in his care on and off for three years during his training, died of leukemia, Randy Ferrance, MD, a hospitalist at Riverside Tappahannock Hospital in Va., filtered the experience into a story.
“The piece was mostly biographical, but I put it in a fictional context,” says Dr. Ferrance. “I wrote it to say some of the things that I never did say, and work through things I never had worked through, with the patient and family. Writing helps me to clear my head and put things in a better perspective. It’s worth the time I carve out. It doesn’t affect the medical end of things, but it helps my ability to continue doing what I do.”
Many hospitalist writers say their art makes them more empathetic.
Joseph Geskey, DO, the division chief of pediatric hospital medicine at Penn State M.S. Hershey Medical Center in Pa., has published poetry in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an anthology in a book, essays, and fiction. “Writing allows you to clarify your thoughts, so it allows for some epiphanies, not only [regarding] writing but about life in general,” he says.
Preliminary studies suggest writing may have medical benefits such as reducing stress catecholamines and inflammatory markers. Though hard data are still to come, Dr. Geskey believes writing has made him a better physician. He says he is more patient, a better listener, and lets patients digress in their stories, revealing information he might not otherwise have learned. “If I’m able to use my rudimentary senses in my writing to evoke a scene or an image, how do I use those same senses to color in my interaction with patients, to help them feel better?” he asks.
The Trend Grows
There are a number of doctors who teach creative writing around the country, and writing workshops for physicians are popping up in and outside medical education curricula.
In Durham, N.C., Dr. Geskey participated in a Duke University poetry and medicine conference that he describes as “probably the most creative three or four days of my life.”