the healing muse

Volume 2, 2002

Physicians on Writing: An Interview with Perri Klass

Dr. Perri KlassA pediatrician in Boston, Dr. Perri Klass, five-time O.Henry Award winner, is a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, which includes two collections of essays about medicine, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure: Four Years as a Medical Student and Baby Doctor: A Pediatrician’s Education. She also serves as medical director of the national literacy program Reach Out and Read.

Dr.Klass met with the editors of The Healing Muse after reading from her recent collection of award-winning stories, Love and Modern Medicine. She was visiting Upstate as invited Keynoter Speaker for Elizabeth Blackwell Day, an annual celebration in remembrance of Upstate’s having graduated the first fully accredited female MD in 1849.

EDS. What do you think of the growing emphasis on literature and narrative in the medical curriculum?

KLASS I applaud it; it gives students official permission to use the other sides of their brains. Knowing how to listen and how to assess what you are hearing and seeing is an essential skill for a physician; such knowing is also of great value to a writer. I see the arts and humanities as a refreshing influence in the curriculum; students are so drenched in science that they may lose the art of reflection. For me, writing has always helped nurture and sustain that art.

EDS. Did you keep a journal during your medical school years?

KLASS Oh yes, through all my training too; I have what I call ‘boxes of misery’ stored somewhere at home. I saw in ICM that one could do a patient write-up as simply an intellectual exercise, or one could become quite skilled at it, could see him/herself as entering the chaos of a person’s life and creating a structured and orderly response to it that would benefit the patient. I also tell students that writing can be the best revenge for some of the atrocities they undergo during their education.

EDS. How do you find the time to maintain a practice, a family, and still write?

KLASS I’ve always agreed with William Carlos Williams who insisted there was no real competition between the practice of medicine and the art of writing. He found that one nourished the other, and I do too. People are starved for plot; in a doctor’s office, plot just keeps spilling in and spilling out. HMOs mean a story comes to us in pieces over time, but even these little bits of life are intriguing and get me thinking later in the day about the whole story behind the piece I witnessed.

EDS. Do you show the stories to your patients?

KLASS I try very hard not to use my patients in a particular story; I change everything in order to hide the facts of a case. If, however, some aspect of a story seems identifiable or connected to a patient, I will always ask that patient or family to read the story and give me permission to publish it.

EDS. How has writing contributed to your medical career?

KLASS Everybody in this job has to learn empathy and projection; writing has helped me by allowing me to imagine myself inside other people’s stories. I’ve learned some lessons about life from being a physician who writes stories. For example, in medical school no one talked to us about liking a patient or not liking a patient, and it’s amazing when you discover that someone you are treating can make you angry. Creating a character like that and then creating an ending to that encounter can make me think differently or feel better.

EDS. How do your colleagues react to your success as a writer?

KLASS I think mostly positively. I’m seen as someone who genuinely likes our profession and the medical community.

EDS. Who are your literary influences?

KLASS I’m very old-fashioned: I love nineteenth century fiction, Eliot is my all time favorite, Middlemarch the book I can reread forever; I love Dickens and Shirley Jackson, Dorothy Parker, Jill McCorkle. The more I read, the more I want to write. As a mother, I also found myself wanting to write the kinds of stories my children would want to read. Everything feeds the creative impulse.

EDS. Your stories often beautifully illustrate the conflicts faced by physicians who are also parents when they have to deliver bad news about their patients.

KLASS Pediatricians especially, I think, engage in a form of sophisticated denial when catastrophic illness presents in a young patient. ‘If I treat this patient, I will insure that my own child need never suffer such a horror.’ We make deals in our minds with the Lord, with fate, with ourselves. I think I do that in my writing as well; if I can write about it, I can prevent it. Silly but nonetheless real.

EDS. You were invited today to celebrate the presence of women in the medical profession. Your stories, too, celebrate women; any thoughts you’d like to share about being a woman physician?

KLASS As I told the students today, I am really no pioneer; I so admire Elizabeth Blackwell and Sarah Loguen Fraser, women who had to face the hostility and cruelty of their colleagues all alone. I’m grateful to them, and I hope others now see that women in the profession have made enormous contributions to it. In my own experience, I have to say that my male colleagues and professors in medical school were welcoming and supportive. I try to be that for all the students I meet now as well. In my fiction, yes, you will mostly find female characters being supportive of each other. This too comes from my experience; women are strong, capable, funny, smart. Some of the women med students here were telling me how it’s difficult at times to go home and be in the weddings of their friends who seem to be getting their lives underway while those in med school can see only several more long years ahead of them. The cohort effect. I tell them to relax; everything comes in its own time.

Return to Table of Contents, Volume 2, 2002.

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