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Doctors and verses

Sun Herald

Sunday March 27, 2011

Simon Webster

A new collection of stories from writers who trained in medicine illustrates the intimate connection between the two disciplines, writes Simon Webster. IN AN Australian hospital, one Christmas Eve in the 1980s, a six-year-old boy with terminal cancer spiked a fever in the middle of the night. The junior doctor on duty, 25-year-old Leah Kaminsky, phoned a consultant for advice. She was told to check for meningitis by performing a spinal tap, an invasive and uncomfortable procedure."The child was basically dying," Kaminsky says. "It was an unnecessary procedure ... I was horrified but when you're a junior doctor you can't say no."When the boy asked if it would hurt and I answered 'No', he said, 'Don't lie to me'. That just smashed through the emotional wall I had built up over my years of training. I broke down and wept afterwards. He died Christmas morning ..."It was a turning point. That's when I got a journal and started writing again."Kaminsky had been writing fiction and poetry since grade three. But that was put on hold when she took on "the horrors" of medical training. "It got stomped out of me," she says. "The rigours of training, the blunting of the emotions that you have to do at a professional level, the dramas that you see day in, day out ... something got closed off in terms of my creativity."Shortly after the incident on Christmas Eve, Kaminsky gave up medicine temporarily and spent six months in the US, taking poetry and short story classes at New York University."It was wonderful," she says. "I needed the breather. I was a doctor at 23. You emerge [from medical training] with tunnel vision. [New York] let me come back to what I was before I started medical training, as a young girl, and come back to literature and reading and writing and the world of the arts. It helped me strike some sort of balance and it's been my balance ever since."Kaminsky lives in her native Melbourne, working three days a week as a GP and two as a writer. She has been a journalist for The Age, is the co-author of Your Child's Health: A Manual for Australian Parents, the author of a poetry collection (Stitching Things Together) and is working on a non-fiction title and a novel.She is also the instigator and editor of The Pen & the Stethoscope, a collection of fiction and non-fiction by doctor-writers. Contributors include Oliver Sacks, Ethan Canin and Australians Peter Goldsworthy, Jacinta Halloran, John Murray and Nick Earls.Royalties go to the Starlight Children's Foundation, a charity that Kaminsky says was "fantastic" when one of her three children was recovering from serious illness."I thought, how could I give back?" Kaminsky says. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could get a bunch of doctors who write and put together an anthology and raise funds that way?"A session Kaminsky had hosted at the 2009 Melbourne Writers' Festival, in which doctor-writers discussed medicine and the muse, indicated the reading public might be interested in such a collection.Her agent pitched the idea to Scribe, which told Kaminsky she would have to get the co-operation of high-profile writers such as Sacks if the project were to go ahead.She was undeterred. "As a doctor you see people as human beings even if they are famous," Kaminsky says. "They still bleed, they still go to the toilet. I got my wish list together and invited all of these wonderful writers to contribute. Within a week all of them had said yes."One of those writers was Goldsworthy, an Adelaide GP and the author of poetry collections, short stories, opera libretti and seven novels, including Maestro, Honk if You are Jesus and Everything I Knew.He is represented in The Pen & the Stethoscope by The Duty to Die Cheaply, a blackly comic story about a physician on a plane drowning himself in whisky when the dreaded call comes through: "Is there a doctor on board?"The emotional turmoil that usually remains hidden beneath a physician's calm exterior is a theme that runs throughout The Pen & the Stethoscope. That clinical distance that doctors keep, Goldsworthy says, is "about protecting yourself from the deepest sufferings. You can only do so much and you have to be able to detach yourself or you'd be destroyed."Goldsworthy believes the rich tradition of doctor-writers (the list includes John Keats, Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W. Somerset Maugham) may have something to do with the life-and-death dramas that doctors experience. Maugham wrote: "I do not know a better training for a writer than to spend some years in the medical profession.""I think he meant the exposure to worlds other than your own," Goldsworthy says. "Worlds of pain, suffering and what happens to character under duress."Medicine gives you wonderful character studies, wonderful stories. The stakes are often high ... Without this exposure to the vast panorama of human characters I couldn't have been a novelist."Goldsworthy gave up medicine for a couple of years when he first found success as a writer. But he became less productive and "morose". Now he writes in the morning and practises medicine in the afternoon.Kaminsky, too, says she needs both disciplines in her life. Yet the writing side of her life is busy enough. She has a creative fellowship at the State Library of Victoria, researching a nonfiction title about a plan to establish a Jewish homeland in the Kimberley in the 1930s. She is also completing her novel through a low-residency Master of Fine Arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the US.Provisionally titled Waiting Room, Kaminsky's novel is about war and waiting, she says. Its genesis dates back to a trip Kaminsky took to Israel on assignment for The Australian Jewish News in 1991. She met her husband, had three children, stayed 10 years and worked as a doctor treating persecuted members of the Ba'hai faith, victims of terrorist attacks and residents of a Muslim women's shelter.This may explain the intensity of her work. "I can't skate over the surface. I wish I could write happy, light, pastoral things but they tend to cut a bit deeper."The mix of journalism, poetry, fiction and nonfiction is easily explained. "I've always jumped between the genres," she says. "As a doctor I'm a general practitioner ... I'm a bit the same with writing."Kaminsky's real speciality, she jokes, is "winning fellowships". The list of residencies, creative fellowships and grants that she has received in recent years, from the likes of Arts Victoria and the literature board of the Australia Council, is long enough to make her the envy of struggling writers everywhere. Her success, she says, is the result of an attitude inherited from her time in the US."It's the same as how I sent an invitation to Oliver Sacks. I guess I just go for it. That's what I've learnt from the States. There's no fear of success in the States, which there is here in a way."Also, not pinning all my hopes on the applications gives me the strength to be honest on the page with what I want to achieve should I win a fellowship."I'm not sure I'm going to apply for any more. I'm a bit embarrassed."Kaminsky, who emerged from medical school with a desperate need to escape the profession, believes medical students would benefit from studying literature in their training. "Medical humanities" or "narrative medicine", in which students study the arts as well as medicine, is increasingly popular in the US, where proponents say it produces more empathetic physicians. She is convinced the world of literature has made her a better doctor."It's opened me up as a human being so I can hear my patients' stories better," she says. "You're looking for the narrative in a novel and trying to work out what the writer's really saying here, what is the subtext. So when I'm talking to a patient I find myself thinking, what are they saying here? What is that recurrent sore throat that you're coming in with really about?"Writing and practising medicine go together hand in latex glove, Kaminsky says. "You need curiosity as a doctor and as a writer. You have to know about people, so you ask questions and you listen very carefully. It comes from a similar space."Which discipline would she give up if she had to? "Don't ask," she says. "It's like asking which child ..."However, she has no doubt which is more difficult. "Writing a novel has been harder than going through med school. Absolutely. The level of craft, the learning curve ... I set out very naively saying I would write a novel ... my god! It's exciting but it's very up and down."The Pen & the Stethoscope, edited by Leah Kaminsky, is published by Scribe, $32.95.

© 2011 Sun Herald

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