Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, is a physician at Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in country. She writes about medicine and the doctor-patient connection for The New York Times and her writings have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, and on CNN.com and National Public Radio. She is the author of four books, numerous essays, and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. See her most recent TEDMED talk here: Deconstructing Perfection.
What advice you have to young physician-writers?
I wish there was a simple answer to “how to do it;” alas there isn’t. I definitely recommend taking a writing course or two. You might even want to work one-on-one with a good writing teacher. At some point, you may want to form a writing group with a few people at similar writing levels. It’s a long haul, and just start bit by bit. I can’t emphasize enough the value of a professional writing class or teacher — there’s a lot of craft to learn, stuff that even good friends and supportive colleagues might not be able to offer.
As a practical matter, I take the equivalent of two days each week that I am not in the hospital. This is the only way I can find time to write, and for me it’s worth the salary cut. But other writers get up early, or write at night, or between patients. Each person ultimately figures out their own path.
What drove you to write and what keeps you going?
During my medical training, I was aware that so many singular and fascinating stories were unfolding right in front of me, but there wasn’t time (or emotional space) to really think about any of them. After residency I took a year and half to travel. It was during that time that I began to write down these stories. There was no intention of publication, just a need to get them all on paper at a pace that would allow me some time to contemplate all that occurred and how all these stories resonated with me and with those around me.
I guess it’s the same drive that keeps me going now.
What is the most meaningful impact of your writing in your opinion?
For me, writing is the chance to slow down the movie. In real life, things happen so quickly that there’s no time to reflect or even think. Writing offers the chance to contemplate the nuances of medical life, for which we rarely have a chance.
Please tell us about a roadblock that you face when incorporating writing into medicine and how you overcame it.
The main roadblock is time. I solved this by taking a large salary cut so that I work only 60% time in the hospital. If I had the money for that 40% of time, I probably wouldn’t notice it — it would be absorbed into regular expenses. When I have time for writing (or playing cello or being with my family), I appreciate the value of every single moment. I don’t take a single one for granted.
What is your opinion on how to best respect patient privacy while writing from a physician perspective?
Whenever possible, I get consent from my patients. If that’s not possible (e.g. too much time has passed and I can’t track them down) then I change details so that they would be unrecognizable. My main goal is that I portray them respectfully. I want to honor their stories, such that if they were see the story in print, I hope they would see it as a respectful portrayal and not exploitation.
Do you have a role model? If so, who is it and how do they inspire you?
Oliver Sacks has been a role model and mentor for years. His ongoing curiosity and interest in the lives of his patients has been inspirational.
On an somewhat related note, whose input on your writing do you value most?
Over the years I’ve had various people who’ve offered excellent feedback — writing teachers, my husband Benjy, my superb editor at Beacon, and my editor at The New York Times.
What two pieces of advice do you have for young physicians in general? Or, if you were to go through your training and career thus far again, would you do anything differently?
Whenever I ask students (or physicians, for that matter) what their hobby or passion is, they often respond with a pained expression. When I ask what their hobby or passion “used to” be, they will speak wistfully about the things they loved to do — reading, music, cooking, exercise, pottery, art, hiking. My advice would be to try to stitch in a few minutes a day of what gives your life meaning. In a couple of years you will completely forget the Krebs cycle or the 20 types of vasculitis, but the things that give you meaning will stay with you.