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Stanford medical school doctors explore the human condition through creative writing

The Stanford Med Writer’s Forum gives medical school students, residents and physicians the opportunity to share the stories that help them reflect on the caregiving lessons that can't be found in a medical textbook.


October 8, 2013

For fourth year medical student Casey Means, it was ChapStick.  Or more specifically, bringing ChapStick to a terminal patient who had horribly chapped lips. That exchange made an impression on the patient, and on Casey, who wrote a short story about the experience called “My First Patient.”

Means was one of 5 medical students, attending and resident physicians to read an original work at the Stanford Med Writer’s Forum, which was held Stanford School of Medicine on September 26, 2013.

As Means read from her story, the experience taught her that, “perhaps that’s what it is to be both a doctor and a patient: you enter through the sliding doors of the hospital, not sure what to expect, not even knowing what you need. Eventually, you both will leave through those hospital doors, changed inside in ways you couldn’t have predicted.”

Med Writer’s Forums take place four times a year, and are sponsored by the Stanford Arts, Humanities and Medicine Program, directed by Dr. Audrey Shafer, and by the Pegasus Physician Writers at Stanford, which is led by Shafer and Dr. Hans Steiner.

Shafer, a poet and author of the young adult novel, The Mailbox, says the forums are an opportunity for sharing and learning.

“Writing our stories is a way to make sense of and celebrate the privilege of caring for other human beings,” Shafer says. The Forums, she added, are a venue for “meaning making for our students and attending and resident physicians, who are often experiencing some of their most profound life experiences while caring for patients.”

Psychiatry resident Dr. Margaret May’s story “Grandmother” echoed Shafer’s sentiments. In her story, May drew poignant parallels between her elderly patients, her grandmother, and her newborn son.

The audience, which included physicians, medical students, Stanford faculty and staff and community members listened attentively as May read an excerpt of her story: “With my elderly ladies, I break all the rules about touching patients. They are my grandmother, in some way or another, and I hold their hand, touch their shoulder. One of my patients greets me every morning with a hug, and a traditional kiss from her culture on both cheeks.  She is wasting away, and her hugs are akin to being embraced by a skeleton, a ghost.  She tells me, in some of the only English she knows, “I love you.”  It is her way of saying thank you. I know that.”

In the essay “En Rose: A Resident’s Notes on Mortality,” second year psychiatry resident Dr. Noga Ravid describes going from being unable or unwilling to see the signs of dying, to not being able to see much else.

But as Ravid read to the audience, a phone call from her grandmother helped restore her hope: “She called me for my 28th birthday, joyously, about a month ahead of time. She didn’t remember exactly the date, she said, but she knew it was my 28th, and she remembered my number, and dialed it by heart.”

Dr. Shaili Jain, clinical assistant professor (affiliated) of Psychiatry, gave insight into the responsibility a physician faces when deciding to commit a patient to a psychiatric ward involuntarily in her story “Sectioned.”

Jain wrote about her mentor Dr. C: “I watched Dr. C in action.  He knew his signature held the power to hospitalize Bessie in a psychiatric hospital against her will and this was not a decision he took lightly. He had diligently accrued the data he needed to make his case:  Patricia’s troubling weekly reports; Bessie threatening Dave with a knife and throwing bottles at the milkman.”

Special guest Dr. Louise Aronson, an Associate Professor of Geriatrics at UCSF, read excerpts from her book, A History of the Present Illness, including “The Promise,” a short story about caring for the elderly in San Francisco.

More so than most urban centers, San Francisco’s world-famous hills have produced a city replete with ancient and otherwise disabled people rendered invisible by their inability to go out,” Aronson read.  

Aronson, who directs the Northern California Geriatric Education Center Referrals, continued,  “within months of starting the practice, I had to increase my work hours to keep pace with demand; I couldn’t abide the very real possibility that the time a potential client spent on my waiting list might exceed his or her life expectancy.”

After the readings, the physician writers took questions and comments from the audience. When asked if they believed their writing made them better doctors, the panelists all agreed.

“Because so much of what happens in the ICU is so intense and larger than life, writing allows me to pull back a bit from the intensity of the experience and reflect on what it means to my patients, and to me,” Ravid said.

The next Stanford Med Writer’s Forum will be held on January 23rd, 2014, 5:30pm at the Stanford Humanities Center.

In addition to the Stanford Med Writer’s Forum, Shafer’s program sponsors Recombinations, a seminar series exploring and celebrating the intersection of the arts, medicine, bioscience and technology. The next Recombinations event, “Integrating the Arts and Sciences in New Paths of Undergraduate Study,” will be held on Monday, October 28th and is free and open to all students and faculty.

And, Shafer says, it is not too early to put Medicine and the Muse on your calendars. The popular art and music event planned by medical students features a reception with medical student artwork, and a guest speaking appearance by Dr. Khaled Hosseini author of the best-selling books, The Kite Runner and And the Mountains Echoed.

*Patient information presented in these pieces was de-identified and certain details were changed to ensure patient confidentiality.

Jacqueline Genovese is the program coordinator for the Arts, Humanities & Medicine Program at the Stanford School of Medicine.

Media Contact: Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication:  (650) 724-8156,