Doc lit: The books by doctors that deserve a spot beside your deckchair
Medical Matters: ‘There are few things as addictive as telling your story’
Concept of medical education with book and stethoscope. Photograph: iStock
It is a good time to be a writing doctor. Doctors have always been categorised by their main job; into surgeons, psychiatrists or physicians for example, but they can also be described by their main interest. So you have teaching doctors, entrepreneurial doctors, sporting doctors, and even fiddle-playing doctors.
My friend Muiris Houston, who usually hosts this column, is a writing doctor and so am I, and we suddenly find ourselves in fashion. There is a recent explosion in interest in medical books, blogs and columns, and you will see many an example of “doc lit” by the pools and beaches this summer.
These are some of my favourites.
The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams is a great read in graphic novel form about the life of a fictional GP. The Doctor Who Sat for a Year by Brendan Williams is a light hearted and intelligent look at mediation by a psychiatrist who was a “zen failure” by his own admission.
Dr Lucia Gannon’s Life of an Irish Country Doctor is a moving, thoughtful and fascinating memoir, giving a profound insight into the thousands of consultations that occur every day. Some writing doctors, like Chekov, made their hobby their main profession, but most of us just fit it in between the cracks of a hectic day job and family life. Lucia Gannon was a young mother GP and educator and it is all brilliantly described in her book. It deserves a place beside every deckchair this summer.
There are few things as addictive as telling your story.When I was a medical student on my first GP assignment I was amazed at the human stories I would hear in one day and 30 years later, I am still amazed. If you get into the habit of active listening, of trying to make sense of what you hear, and noting the effect it has on you, then you take a huge leap of personal awareness and you see the job with fresh eyes every day.You read the stories of those who have gone before you and your contemporaries and see that they have experienced the same wonder at life. You try to retell the narratives you hear in a way that does them justice.
If you are interested in medical writing, you will appreciate the dotMD conference, which will be held in Galway on September 13th and 14th. It will feature an inspiring collection of writers and artists on a loosely medical theme and it is gathering an international reputation for being the best conference of its kind in the world. Muiris Houston is one of the organisers.
DotMD promises some brilliant speakers and communicators handling big themes. I am especially looking forward to Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon, a Cork-based GP and medical writer who has a wonderful blog, Adventures of a Sick Doctor, about her experiences as both a doctor and a patient. Kathryn Mannix, author of Death in Mind, and Ian Williams will be there, as well as Anthony O’Connor, a witty and insightful columnist and gastroenterologist. If you cannot make dotMD, Anthony, Sarah Fitzgibbon and Lucia Gannon all write for the periodical the Medical Independent and their work is only a quick search away.
I am proud to be a writing doctor. We are a small band, but we know that there is something compelling about listening, reflecting and then retelling what you have encountered. It gives an awareness of the privilege of being in a job where you can help people, and a different, more thoughtful way of working, as well as an appreciation of the humour and the tragedy you encounter every day. As a writer, you are always treated to a flood of new material, predicaments and the heights and depths of human nature.
I hope that some day each wide-eyed new entrant to medical school will be given an appreciation of the arts of creative writing, narrative medicine and memoir. It will make them better doctors in the long run, and give them, and many others if they keep it up, a lot of pleasure as well.