Question: What do you call physicians who write?
- Jay Baruch, MD
I sit in the office and listen as she tells me her story. Her cancer treatment had impacted her family in nearly unimaginable ways. Personal demons are everywhere. Just as she recovered from surgery, her marriage disintegrated. Her life has been and would always be completely different from my own. I am riveted.
As I sit transfixed, my mind starts working … is this a story I can turn into an essay?
In a piece entitled, “Thin Walls,” Jay Baruch
writes about a woman who leaves college and lives with her grandparents, becoming part of their lives in the months before her grandfather succumbs to a slow and debilitating death from cirrhosis. The story careens dangerously through drug dealing to child neglect to the physical effects of liver failure to suicide to death. We watch proud, angry, and stubborn people collapse. We wonder at the effect on the young woman — a character created by Dr. Baruch, an emergency physician and bioethicist at Brown University. The narrative is breathtaking and is only one of the remarkable fictional essays in his book, Fourteen Stories
As an accomplished physician-writer, Dr. Baruch has chosen to work in fiction and he does so for a reason: the stories really belong to the patients. In an essay entitled, The Story Always Comes First
, he confesses that “[w]riting about ‘real events’ and ‘real people’ from my roles as a physician makes me feel like a thief … [because] [t]he physician-patient relationship is tender and complex, charged with issues of vulnerability and power.”
As I listen to my patient run through the latest disasters, I wonder how I could share her story, honestly and reflectively, in a way that betrays nothing of the patient’s private experience. Like Dr. Baruch, I write to “understand particular human behavior and to effectively communicate that which surprises and disturbs me.”
I decide to pass on turning this woman's difficult struggles into an essay. Maybe a small piece of it will end up in a work of fiction someday. In the meantime, I will continue to admire writers like Jay Baruch.