Anna Reisman, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, was a third-year medical student when she performed an abortion for the first time.
As she completed the operation, the doctor assisting her with the procedure whistled the tune to “Another One Bites the Dust,” initiating Reisman into the emotionally sterile world of medical practice.
Although Reisman long since graduated, she thinks that the doctors, often unable to emotionally process their experiences, continue to have to difficulty dealing with their patients as people instead of cases. To help change the attitude, Reisman created the Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop, in which doctors are able to reflect on their experiences with patients.
“You’re put into this chaotic environment, you’re going through incredibly draining experiences, and there’s no let-up,” Reisman said. “Normally when things happen, emotionally challenging events happen, you can think about them and talk about them. But in most places there’s nothing built into the system to allow doctors to process what they go through.”
This is the fourth year that the School of Medicine will offer the workshop, which participants in the program call highly successful. They said that it helped them better understand their experiences and more successfully relate to their peers and their patients.
In the two-day intensive program, doctors in residence dissect short stories they have submitted and complete different writing exercises. They discuss each other’s pieces, and much of the discussion revolves around how to be better observers of human nature.
In addition to work submitted prior to the workshop, doctors write new stories and complete short writing assignments, such as a piece on the difference between nudity and nakedness.
Scott Heysell, a past participant in the program, said he encountered problems maintaining emotional connections with patients and found the program very helpful.
“[Detachment] happens early on,” he said. “Part of the indoctrination into medicine is to look at something more critically. If [that] something is a human being, there is a natural distancing. Sometimes this is advantageous, but it can also be really detrimental when we lose that connection.”
At the end of the program, each student submits a finished piece and the final collection, entitled “Capsules,” is published. The finished pieces detail experiences with patients and can range from coming to terms with prejudices to treating patients in terminal cases.
A number of doctors who attended the course said the program sparked further interest in creative writing programs. While most participants praised the program, some wished that there had been more diversity in the doctors’ areas of expertise.
“It might have been interesting to have [doctors from] a number of different specialties,” Heysell said. “It would be nice to get a number of different perspectives and even open it up to other professionals, like nurses.”
According to a statement released by the program directors, the program is expanding and will allow doctors of psychiatry and pediatrics, in addition to internal medicine, to participate. The next creative writing workshop will be held Nov. 10 and 11.