Anna Reisman

The 18th annual Yale Internal Medicine Writers’ Workshop served as a space for healers in need of healing. Through writing narrative nonfiction, 12 resident physicians reflected on and derived meaning from the challenging world of medicine. 

During the two-day intensive writing workshop, the residents engaged in lively group discussions of each other’s pieces, revised accordingly and tackled writing exercises. Anna Reisman ’86, School of Medicine professor and director of the program for humanities in medicine, and Lisa Sanders MED ’97, associate professor of medicine, co-directed the workshop. They provided mentoring during and after the workshop as the residents finalized their pieces for the annual reading. Out of the 12 residents, nine participated in the reading on Feb. 3. This year, the reading was hosted by residents Lena Glowka and Stephanie Wu.

“Reading and writing are my first loves,” psychiatry resident Paul Eigenberger said. “I was an English Literature major in college and never dreamed I’d become a doctor. My experience with the Writers’ Workshop has certainly given me the confidence to write more, and to keep developing my voice and looking for good stories to tell. I think learning to convey powerful emotions and communicate nuanced stories will take a lifetime of trial and error, but it’s a process I look forward to.”

In his piece “Winter Solstice,” Eigenberger reflected on a powerful experience caring for a patient during his internship year. The patient was a man in his early 20s whose life had been unraveling. Over the past month, the patient’s thoughts and behaviors had changed, reaching “a crescendo of paranoia and aggression” that landed him in Eigenberger’s care.

The narrative began with an observation of his patient’s tense body and apparent suppression of “a great and powerful anger.” One day, after continued care and a court’s decision to involuntarily commit the patient to the hospital, the patient opened up to Eigenberger. It was an unexpected moment of ease, free of the patient’s usual tension — they engaged in casual, transparent communication. From this conversation, it suddenly clicked in Eigenberger’s mind that this man suffered from drug-induced psychosis. In a heart-wrenching conclusion, Eigenberger ended his story with the patient echoing his original complaint — “they’ll never let me sleep,” with a cold, distant stare.

“My patients had begun to follow me home, smuggled from the hospital in unpatrolled corners of my mind, only to reappear while I prepared dinner, read stories to my daughter, or closed my eyes to sleep,” wrote Eigenberger. 

This year marked internal medicine resident Christina Dimopoulos’ second time participating in the writing workshop. Her piece was inspired by a patient she took care of in the COVID-19 ICU in March 2021. The patient was critically ill at a time during which patients were not allowed to have visitors. 

To cope with this, Dimopoulos would talk to the patient’s teenage daughters each day to update them on his condition. Through writing, she sought to process a challenging experience that had afflicted so many physicians during the pandemic. 

“You think about all the patients for whom you were the last person they spoke to because no one else was allowed to be there,” Dimopoulos wrote.

Her piece opens with the man lying motionless on the hospital bed, face obscured, cut up by the plastic discs securing his ventilator in place. She grieved the fact that he belonged to a community disproportionately affected by the pandemic. She lamented the fact that he was in his early 40s, meaning that he fell sick before he was eligible for the vaccine. 

Potent lines are scattered throughout the narrative. Following a regular checkup on his condition, Dimopoulos wrote about her need to believe that the patients she cared for would get better, to cling onto a “glimmer of hope during this wave.”

Even after she had to move onto another unit, she reviewed the medical record frequently to check on the patient’s condition. But she realized that what she wanted to know was not documented in the chart. One day, Dimopoulos opened the chart and saw that he had died. She cried for him, for his family and for her own shattered hope, and then suited up for her next patient. 

“Being a resident writer to me means that I am able to share my experience of being a new physician with others in the field, and hopefully create something that resonates with other healthcare workers,” Dimopolous said. “I also write to reach people outside of medicine, so that they get a glimpse into the thoughts and emotions of physicians. Mostly I do it for myself as a way to put challenging interactions on paper.”

During the first wave of the pandemic, internal medicine resident Nathan Wood took care of a deeply faith-driven patient who fell ill with COVID-19. Throughout his narrative, Wood compared this patient to his grandmother, based on both character and appearance. After taking care of this patient for the better part of two weeks, she died. 

Wood recounted feeling helpless. This occurred during the time before the world had evidence-based practices, COVID-19 experts or vaccines — there was no cure, only supportive care. As he wrote his piece, Wood continued processing this loss and the meaning he derived from it. He had learned to prioritize the ‘caring’ in medicine as much as he prioritized the ‘treating.’ Wood’s reading culminated in him tenderly singing lines from a song his grandmother had shared with him: “Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming to carry me home.”

“As a new physician, you’ve only just been thrust into seeing patients — into feeling the weight of being responsible for human lives, into trying to preserve and restore health in a broken system,” Wood said. “Add in a pandemic, and that’s a lot to process. Writing really helps with that. It’s also one of the most powerful ways that we as physicians can tell stories that need to be told and only we can tell.”

For psychiatry resident Nichole Roxas, being a resident writer means making space for healers who need care too. Last year, in the span of a few days, she lost both her uncle and aunt to COVID-19. Using an orchid as an extended metaphor, Roxas reminded herself to grow gardens around her pain. As a Filipina whose mother had been redeployed to the COVID-19 ICU, Roxas wrestled with the reality that though Filipino nurses make up only 4 percent of nurses in the US, they comprised more than 25 percent of nurses who had died of COVID-19 and its complications nationwide. She sought out the writing workshop as a community to help her pause, make meaning and reflect. Roxas wanted to “see and be seen.”

“It’s always great to see writers get onto paper an idea, an experience, a character that lives on in their mind,” Sanders said. “Getting across both the essential details of what happened, and in doing it thoughtfully, artfully, revealing what it means. This year’s writers did an outstanding job of telling their stories.”

Each year, a doctor-writer is invited to speak at the School of Medicine’s “Writing and Medicine” Grand Rounds, which takes place the same day as the annual resident reading. Nephrologist and internist Vanessa Grubbs delivered the talk “After Interlaced Fingers: Lessons Learned Since Becoming an Author,” as this year’s visiting speaker. The residents’ pieces were collected in a booklet called “Capsules” and distributed to the medical community. 

Reisman was moved by hearing the residents read their revised pieces aloud to a large audience, having witnessed the work that each writer put in during the workshop. She noted that by listening to their colleagues’ narratives, many of the other residents may be inspired to apply for next year’s workshop. Glowka views writing as a powerful way for residents to refresh mentally, avoid burnout and find meaning in their work.

“I think there’s a false sense of objectivity that is imbued in us during our medical training which we can challenge, in a way, through narrative writing — and the arts in general — which requires us to turn our curiosity inward and evaluate our own internal narratives as a starting point for asking questions of ourselves, our patients and the institutions we are embedded in,” Wu said.

The Yale Department of Internal Medicine established the Writers’ Workshop in 2003.

Correction, Feb. 22: A previous version of this article referred to Wood’s grandmother as his late grandmother. She is still alive, and the story has been updated. The News regrets this error.

Kayla Yup covers Science & Social Justice and the Yale New Haven Health System for the SciTech desk. For the Arts desk, she covers anything from galleries to music. She is majoring in Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and History of Science, Medicine & Public Health as a Global Health Scholar.