Last July, while making rounds with residents at Bellevue Hospital, Danielle Ofri, MD, assistant professor of medicine, approached the bedside of a bearded, dark-eyed man in his mid-60s with pneumococcal pneumonia.
“What can you tell me about this patient?” Dr. Ofri asked one of her charges.
The resident recited vital signs and gave a cursory medical history. “No tobacco, alcohol, or drugs,” he said.
“Is that all you can tell me about him?” Dr. Ofri asked. The team stared at her blankly.
Noticing the patient’s French first name and Jewish surname, she asked him some questions. In short order, she learned that his parents had escaped Vichy France during World War II when he was a baby, that he had attended a Jesuit school in Shanghai, and that he became a chef in New York, but his restaurant offered him no health insurance—hence, his visit to Bellevue.
For Dr. Ofri, author of Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue and Medicine in Translation: Journeys with My Patients, the episode was a vivid reminder that being a writer can enrich being a physician, and vice versa. “Both are interested in paying attention to detail and building characters,” she explains. “The most common denominators are a keen curiosity and the ability to ask the right questions. Physicians and writers are attuned to gathering just the right relevant detail.”
The list of physician-writers in history is long and distinguished. Renaissance satirist François Rabelais practiced medicine, and so did playwright Anton Chekhov (“Medicine is my lawful wife,” he wrote, “literature is my mistress”). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent his spare time creating Sherlock Holmes, whose deductive prowess uncannily resembles medical diagnosis, largely because Doyle’s sleuth was modeled after one of his former professors, Dr. Joseph Bell, the most renowned diagnostician of his day. Novelists Somerset Maugham and Michael Crichton, as well as poet William Carlos Williams, also trained as physicians. Williams described medicine and writing as “two parts of a whole.
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