Rachel Kowalsky’s work was published in a prestigious medical journal last month, and she’s proud to say she made it all up.
Kowalsky, M03, MG03 (MPH), a children’s emergency room doctor in New York City, won the New England Journal of Medicineinaugural fiction contest. His short story, The Billboard, about a pediatrician who aspires to be featured in an advertisement for the hospital he works in, was chosen from over 300 entries.
Kowalsky’s protagonist is a medical hero, even though he doesn’t perform life-saving surgeries or treat COVID patients in intensive care. “It doesn’t always look like this,” Kowalsky said. “Sometimes it’s just something ordinary, like a whisper in the nursery, or an ear infection that will never turn into meningitis because you prescribed the right antibiotic, or you treated the eczema. of a child to stop being ashamed of his skin. and stay focused at school.
Submissions were reviewed by journal staff and three professional writers known for their medical fiction. Debra Malina, editor of the newspaper’s Perspective, said the judges responded about the story and the quality of the writing. Plus, she said, it’s funny, especially when the main character’s attempts to do something billboard-worthy, like performing the Heimlich on a choking man at a meal counter, are repeatedly rejected by the communications manager of the hospital. (“I don’t think cold cuts matter.”)
Kowalsky is an assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine and clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, but has been a writer her entire life, even while studying medicine at Tufts, when she took a bus from Boston to New York for a class. weekly writer. Her short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines, writing blogs and anthologies. Many of her stories, including two she published this year about a hospital pianist and an emergency room clerk, are inspired by people who work in a hospital.
She sees her daily work through the lens of a writer. “I’ve always seen medicine in terms of stories – the story of the patient, my story, how they intersect,” she said.
The first thing a patient says in the exam room can be just as meaningful as the first lines of a story, she explained. A parent of a feverish baby, for example, might start the conversation with, “I just don’t think I was on a proper diet when I was pregnant,” hinting at the core of her concern.
“The words patients will use to describe things, the repetition of words, the things that they keep coming back to, it helps you understand why they are really there,” Kowalsky said.
How can an emergency doctor and a mother of two integrate writing into her life? A supportive husband (Marc Kowalsky, M03) and a department director (Rahul Sharma, M01) are part of it, while being disciplined enough to reserve two-hour blocks for writing only. “I organize it in my calendar, like a meeting,” she said.
She also takes the time to introduce new physicians to the connection between medicine and the arts. She directs the humanities component of the hospital’s emergency medicine residency program, where she leads a narrative medicine workshop for residents.
“Learning to tell stories and read poetry helps us be better, more empathetic doctors because it makes you imagine another person’s perspective,” Kowalsky said. “You become more flexible in your way of thinking. “
Malina, the newspaper’s editor, said the idea for the fiction contest came from editor-in-chief Eric Rubin, M90, GBS90, and that she encountered many people’s desire for something light after a difficult year. “I think part of it was the pandemic and the need for an escape, both for writers and medical readers,” she said.
Kowalsky said she hopes the competition continues, as it recognizes that the arts have value in medicine.
“More and more, medicine has looked for ways to keep humanity in the interaction between doctor and patient,” she said. “There is so much going on between us, from electronic medical records to time constraints to PPE that prevents us from seeing our facial expressions. Thinking more about the stories everyone else has to tell can be a way to nurture the bond that patients and physicians want.
Julie Flaherty can be reached at [email protected]