A space for healers in need of healing

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Anna Reisman

The 18th Annual Yale Internal Medicine Writers’ Workshop served as a space for healers in need of healing. By writing non-fiction stories, 12 medical residents reflected and made sense of the difficult world of medicine.

During the intensive two-day writing workshop, residents engaged in lively group discussions of each other’s pieces, revising accordingly, and tackling writing exercises. Anna Reisman ’86, professor in the School of Medicine and director of the Humanities in Medicine program, and Lisa Sanders MED ’97, associate professor of medicine, co-led the workshop. They provided mentorship during and after the workshop as the residents finalized their texts for the annual reading. Of the 12 residents, nine participated in the February 3 reading. This year, the reading was hosted by residents Lena Glowka and Stephanie Wu.

“Reading and writing are my first loves,” said psychiatry resident Paul Eigenberger. “I was studying English literature at university and I never imagined becoming a doctor. My experience with the writers workshop has certainly given me the confidence to write more, and to continue to develop my voice and seek out great stories to tell. I think learning to convey strong emotions and communicate nuanced stories will take a lifetime of trial and error, but it’s a process I look forward to.

In his article “Winter Solstice,” Eigenberger recounted a powerful experience of caring for a patient during his internship year. The patient was a man in his twenties whose life was unfolding. Over the past month, the patient’s thoughts and behaviors had changed, reaching “a crescendo of paranoia and aggression” that brought him to Eigenberger’s care.

The account began with an observation of his patient’s tense body and the apparent suppression of “great and powerful anger”. One day, after further care and a court decision to involuntarily commit the patient to the hospital, the patient opened up to Eigenberger. It was an unexpected moment of relaxation, freed from the patient’s usual tension — they engaged in relaxed and transparent communication. From this conversation, it suddenly clicked in Eigenberger’s mind that this man was suffering from drug-induced psychosis. In a heartbreaking conclusion, Eigenberger ended his story with the patient echoing his initial complaint – “they’ll never let me sleep”, with a cold, distant look.

“My patients had started following me home, smuggled out of the hospital into unguarded corners of my mind, only to reappear while I was cooking dinner, reading stories to my daughter or closing my eyes to sleep,” said wrote Eigenberger.

This year marked the second participation of Christina Dimopoulos, internal medicine resident, in the writing workshop. Her piece was inspired by a patient she cared for in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit in March 2021. The patient was seriously ill at a time when patients were not allowed to have visitors.

To cope with this, Dimopoulos spoke to the patient’s teenage daughters every day to inform them of his condition. Through writing, she sought to process a difficult experience that had plagued so many doctors during the pandemic.

“You think of all the patients that you were the last person they spoke to because no one else was allowed to be there,” Dimopoulos wrote.

His play opens with the man lying motionless on the hospital bed, his face obscured, cut up by the plastic discs securing his ventilator in place. She lamented that he came from a community disproportionately affected by the pandemic. She lamented that he was in his early 40s, meaning he fell ill before he was eligible for the vaccine.

Powerful lines are scattered throughout the narrative. After regularly checking her condition, Dimopoulos wrote about her need to believe that the patients she cared for would get better, to hold on to a “glimmer of hope during this wave”.

Even after having to move to another unit, she frequently consulted the medical records to check on the patient’s condition. But she realized that what she wanted to know was not documented in the file. One day, Dimopoulos opened the map and saw that he was dead. She wept for him, for his family, and for her own shattered hope, then dressed for her next patient.

“Being a writer-in-residence for me means I can share my experience as a new doctor with others in the field and hopefully create something that resonates with other healthcare workers,” Dimopolous said. “I also write to reach people outside of medicine, so they can get insight into the thoughts and feelings of doctors. Most of the time, I do it for myself to put difficult interactions on paper.

During the first wave of the pandemic, internal medicine resident Nathan Wood cared for a deeply believing patient who fell ill with COVID-19. Throughout his story, Wood compared this patient to his grandmother, based on both character and appearance. After caring for this patient for nearly two weeks, she passed away.

Wood recounted feeling helpless. This happened before the world had evidence-based practices, COVID-19 experts or vaccines – there was no cure, only supportive care. As he wrote his article, Wood continued to process this loss and the meaning he derived from it. He had learned to prioritize “care” in medicine as much as he prioritized “treatment.” Wood’s reading resulted in him lovingly singing lines from a song his grandmother had shared with him: “Swing low, sweet char.” Come take me home.

“As a new doctor, you’ve just been pushed to see patients — to feel the weight of being responsible for human lives, to try to preserve and restore health to a broken system,” Wood said. “Add in a pandemic, and that’s a lot to process. The writing really helps with that. It is also one of the most powerful ways that we doctors can tell stories that need to be told and that only we can tell.

For psychiatry resident Nichole Roxas, being a writer-in-residence means making room for healers who also need healing. Last year, within a matter of days, she lost her uncle and aunt to COVID-19. Using an orchid as an extended metaphor, Roxas reminded herself to grow gardens around her pain. As a Filipina whose mother had been redeployed to the COVID-19 ICU, Roxas struggled with the reality that although Filipino nurses make up only 4% of nurses in the United States, they make up more than 25% of nurses. deceased from COVID-19. and its complications nationwide. She sought out the writing workshop as a community to help her pause, make sense, and reflect. Roxas wanted to “see and be seen”.

“It’s always great to see writers put an idea, an experience, a character that lives in their minds on paper,” Sanders said. “Conveying both the essential details of what happened and, in doing so in a thoughtful, astute way, revealing what it means. This year’s writers have done an outstanding job of telling their stories.

Each year, a physician-writer is invited to speak at the Medical School’s major “Writing and Medicine” rounds, which take place on the same day as the annual resident reading. Nephrologist and internist Vanessa Grubbs delivered “After Fingers Intertwined: Lessons Learned Since Becoming an Author” as this year’s guest speaker. The residents’ pieces were collected in a booklet called “Capsules” and distributed to the medical community.

Reisman was moved hearing residents read their revised plays aloud to a large audience, after witnessing the work each writer put in during the workshop. She noted that by hearing the stories of their colleagues, many other residents might be inspired to apply for next year’s workshop. Glowka sees writing as a powerful way for residents to mentally recharge, stave off burnout, and find meaning in their work.

“I think there’s a false sense of objectivity that’s imbued in us during our medical training that we can challenge, in a way, through narrative writing – and the arts in general – that forces us to turning our curiosity inward and evaluating our own narratives as a starting point for asking questions about ourselves, our patients, and the institutions in which we are embedded,” Wu said.

Yale’s Department of Internal Medicine established the Writers’ Workshop in 2003.

Correction, February 22: A previous version of this article referred to Wood’s grandmother as his late grandmother. She is still alive and the story has been updated. The News regrets this error.




KAYLA YUP


Kayla Yup covers science and social justice with an interest in the intersections of humanities and STEM. She is in her first year of specialization in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and in the history of science, medicine and public health.

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