Aug. 7, 2007 -- Can writing prevent doctor burnout?
Dr. Daniel Becker, who practices general internal medicine, thinks so.
“[Doctors] think about what bothers them and transform it and share it,” he said. “Talking about difficult and sad cases is therapeutic. It’s like putting it in a jar and on the shelf. It’s not as radioactive.”
A published poet, Becker, 58, is providing his fellow health care workers with an outlet for their creativity: an online literary journal named "Hospital Drive: A Journal of Reflective Practice in Word & Image." The journal, which carries short stories, poems and photographs, debuted July 30 and is available at hospitaldrive.med.virginia.edu.
“A lot of people in the health care field write about their experiences and they want an opportunity for this work to be read,” Becker said, “There are not a lot of magazines that have health care as a focal point.”
Health care workers, Becker said, are full of stories.
“Doctors who write are good company, because they tell good stories,” he said.
Hospital Drive, named after the road that runs between Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village and the Medical Center complex, accepts submissions from doctors, nurses and other health care workers, including medical support staff, drivers and administrators from around the country. Three from U.Va. — Noreen Crain, medical director of pediatric palliative care at the Children’s Hospital; Phillip Gordon, a neonatologist and associate professor of pediatrics; and Jim Hagan, professor emeritus of art — had works published in the first issue.
The contents include a poem about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a story that is a rumination on baptism and death, a short story about the moment of death and a poem about a medical conference, all interspersed with photographs, many of which are pastoral. Much of the editorial content focuses on medical themes.
“A lot of medical professionals write well,” said journal managing editor Heather Burns, whose Boston terrier, Bixby, is featured on the “cover” of the first issue. Some may have undergraduate English degrees or have taken graduate writing programs while practicing medicine, she said.
Hospital Drive fills a niche in what Becker sees as a growing field. The Journal of American Medical Association publishes a poem each issue and has space for short essays, and the New York University Department of Medicine publishes the Bellevue Review, until now the only medical-related literary journal.
“It is quite intriguing to create a space for anyone in the medical field to write about their experience,” said Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review and one of Becker’s advisers on the project.
“Online publishing is the future,” Genoways said, noting that is reduces the start-up costs. “I hope the long-established journals can remain in print.”
Becker began thinking about a literary journal while conducting a writing class for doctors and finding few outlets for his students’ work. He initially discussed a journal with Dr. Sharon L. Hostler, now the interim vice president and dean at the U.Va. School of Medicine, who was enthusiastic. Soon, Burns, 41, a doctoral student at Curry School of Education and director of the Charlottesville Writing Center, was brought in as managing editor. Juliet Trail became the webmaster for the project.
“There was a lot of serendipity in this,” Becker said.
The team worked for about a year, according to Burns, getting the word out, reviewing manuscripts, designing the issue and working out the art. Burns herself took the cover photo one evening while walking her dog.
Burns and Becker would like to see more art in the journal — paintings, sculpture and drawings. Burns wants to expand the contributor base and the breadth of the review panels, and hopes to produce a downloadable version of the magazine. She sees Hospital Drive becoming “a top-notch online literary journal with art and video and music” that will increase awareness of medical professionals’ writing.
Burns is exploring the “self-expression link” between medicine and literature — the subject of her dissertation — as well as narrative medicine, where physicians write as part of the learning process. “Doctors would keep a parallel chart, with details about the person and his or her story,” Burns said.
While Becker cannot submit work to his own journal, he continues to put his feelings and stories into his narrative poems, blending and merging people and stories, enjoying the wordplay. He writes every morning after he feeds the dog and makes coffee. Writing, he said, is a necessity.
“I have to write and tell the story because it is infinitely fascinating,” Becker said. “I feel I could write a book about my work life. I enjoy [writing]. It is fun, sharing my stories, and stories patients have told me.”