doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: writing

City construction: my 2¢, and 12 words

280 miles: that’s the length of total scaffolding — aka “sidewalk sheds” — in NYC. I believe this outrageous number only because I read it in a 2017 New York Times article online, which features the picture above, of a site in Brooklyn. There’s even a New York City Buildings Department map of city scaffolding as of May 1, 2017 that tells you the status of each site, including whether it is unsafe. 280 miles. That would get me from NYC all the way to Washington, DC. Or one-third of the way home to Chicago. Hm …

New York City is constantly remaking itself. Constantly breaking down, building up. The end result might be a shimmering skyscraper. But the beginning and interim results, especially for those of us who live here, include road blockages, subway stoppages, sidewalk detours, rickety scaffolding, and a hell of a lot of noise.

For what seems like an eternity, construction crews have been working on the exteriors of the buildings in my apartment complex. Recently, they started on my particular building. A few days ago, I spied them (well, heard them first) hanging outside my living room window, banging and drilling and lord only knows what else.

It’s easy to grumble about all this, harder to smile. This morning though, as I stepped out of my building and peered onto the car-choked street, watching windshield wipers wrestle with the driving rain, I did smile. Because unlike those cars, unlike the drenched pedestrians doggedly pressing through this weather a block or two away (many of them walking dogs), I was dry. This thanks to the facade work, and to the unavoidable, unsightly scaffolding stretching up toward the grim sky.

The following 12 words — in the form of two 6-word stories* — capture both my grumble, and my smile. These are the two sides of the construction coin, the good and the bad, bedfellows tangled in a knot tighter than a surgeon’s wet dream.

 

Construction woe: brick-, brain-boring drills.

Construction pro: block-long tin umbrella.

 

*Note: click here to read my first post about 6-word stories, a now-viral phenomena initially begun by Ernest Hemingway.

Advertisements

Home again, home again, jiggity-jig

The Emirates Airbus A380, which provided a much more comfortable flight than the domestic ones I’m used to, also harbored a hidden danger, as I discovered when I got home.
Image from Wikipedia.

I’m home.

And it’s good to be home, although the re-entry process hasn’t been without its own challenges.

Jet lag is brutal no matter how you slice it. Not only that. While the Airbus A380 that carried me to JFK was airborne at 35,000 feet, something else was apparently airborne too. As an almost-doctor, I identify my invisible assailant as an aspiring virus, one that must have targeted me while I tossed from side to side in my barely reclining seat. At least I had the aisle.

I’m gradually coming out of the viral haze, and starting to tackle the jet lag.

One thing — one day — at a time. It’s a good mantra for medical school, and for life in general.

I have two weeks left in this four-month research block. Along with continuing to recover my scattered faculties and resetting my sleep schedule, I’ll be entering my data and putting together a “Work in Progress” presentation on what I’ve done so far.

While the trip is fresh in my mind, I’ll also be posting more thoughts, reflections, and photos. I found so much to write about while in Uganda, but simply not enough time to write it all down in the moment. When an essay idea hit, but when I was short on time or energy, I’d hurriedly type a partial draft or even *gasp* an outline. (Normally, I am loathe to write outlines, and have been since I was in sixth grade, when my language arts teacher, Mrs. Piper, forced the cumbersome process on us.) When I didn’t have my laptop handy, I’d scrawl thematic threads in one of the three pocket notebooks I brought with me. A reporter is NEVER without her notebook and her pen, and she always brings spares, just in case. So stay tuned.

This is not the end of my project, though. January and February of 2019, I have two more months fully dedicated to it. At that time, I’ll be more formally analyzing my data, compiling results and conclusions, and writing my report. I’m sure I’ll have more to write about then as well.

Thanks to all of you who have been following and commenting on my jaunts through rural Uganda. As a writer, sharing my experiences is important to me. It’s a creative outlet. It also helps me process and reflect. I find this crucial all the time, perhaps especially so in a foreign country where it can take extra effort to make sense of the world around you.

As they say in Uganda: Weebale. (Thank you.)

Missing New York City, for an unexpected reason

Brevity is not my strong suit. Just ask my editor at The American, the online magazine for which I write a monthly column called Bio-Lingual.

But I’m working on it. And Uganda is helping.

A week and a half ago, a surprise reptile encounter inspired another one of my six-word stories, Hemingway style (only my second ever; I penned the first in January).

Today, I find inspiration for another brief burst of prose from the local schoolchildren:

I miss NYC. It’s quieter there.

One of the chickens that roam the yard in front of the guesthouse here in Naggalama, scurrying away as I snap a picture. A sign of a peaceful countryside, right? Sometimes, yes. But not this week.

I never thought I would call NYC “quieter” than anywhere else, much less rural Africa. For me, the countryside in any country connotes the cheerful sounds of birds chirping and bugs buzzing. Naggalama has these. Here I also hear roosters crowing in the morning, and the tap-tap-tap of hammers as men build a new home for the nuns. (I don’t mind the hammering; it’s an improvement over the jackhammers the workers are using at my New York apartment complex right now.) Sometimes the sounds of choir practice waft over from the church down the road. Or I will hear the voices and laughter of children from the secondary school nearby.

This week, it’s been more than their voices and laughter. Much more.

I think it started Monday morning. I was awake, but enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to jump out of bed. I could lie there under the sheets, in peace, and just be. This is a luxury when you’re a medical student.

Then came the bass.

thump – thump – thump

I rolled over and checked my phone. Just after 7 a.m. What was going on?

I closed my eyes again, hoping the sounds of music and exuberant singing would fade. They did not. They got louder.

After 5 minutes, I got up. It was too much, even wearing my earplugs, which I sleep with every night.

The music and singing were almost constant that day. When I last checked the time, it was 11:50 p.m., and they were still going at it.

Yesterday, I learned that this is the last week of the term for these students, which means they have a full week of singing, worshipping, and celebrating. Essentially a week-long party. I’m sure it’s loads of fun for them. Not so much fun for those of us living next door.

In New York City, I frequently bemoan the noise. The cabs constantly beeping, the clamor of construction and traffic. But my little 1-bedroom apartment, which faces an inner courtyard rather than my busy street, is surprisingly peaceful. This week, I’ve been reminded just how peaceful.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the kids are having fun. I remember how excited I was at the end of a high school semester, so I don’t begrudge their celebration. Heck, my friends and I certainly made plenty of noise in our day. And sometimes I still do, like when I’m listening to a new album from one of my favorite bands.

Thankfully, I’ve figured out how to manage the noise while the party continues. When it’s too loud for me to concentrate on my work, I shove in those purple foam earplugs, even during the day. I’m wearing them now, as a matter of fact.

Even so, I do anticipate a sigh of sonic relief when I get home. After I’ve lugged my two overstuffed suitcases up the stairs, and after my heavy apartment door clicks shut behind me.

Then I will close my eyes, and as Depeche Mode coos: Enjoy the silence.

Lions, tigers, and … lizards?

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ernest Hemingway’s use of the so-called “six-word story,” its explosion on the Internet, and my own attempt at a tiny tale. Good six-word stories, like Hemingway’s, convey an entire world with only a few strokes of the pen (or keyboard). Writers accomplish this by what they do say – the imagery and feelings they conjure directly – as well as what they don’t – the questions and curiosity they raise.

You want to know more. But there is no more. It’s delightfully frustrating.

Here is my second attempt at a six-word story. After you take in the words, think about your own interpretation. What do you think the backstory is? Then scroll down to find out what it’s really about.

There’s a lizard in my underwear!

 

 

 

 

So. Where did your mind rush to when you read those words?

Those of you who know me well may have guessed that like all of my writing on this blog, this, too, stems from reality.

I fail at fiction. Trust me. I’ve tried.

This is truth.

In fact, these very words flew from my mouth in a gasp (or maybe a growl?) of surprise this morning as I was about to sit down and drink my morning coffee.

I’m in rural Uganda. There’s a washing machine here, but no dryer. I’d gone out to enjoy my coffee on the back patio. Where, I discovered, my recently laundered undergarments were hanging, ruffling in the breeze. One had slipped to the brick floor of the patio. I stooped to pick it up and lay it across the bars of the metal clothes rack. As I did so, something small and black flopped out.

“A stick,” I postulated.

And then the stick moved. Darted is more like it.

I saw it in one spot, near my foot. Then a quick black blur, and my black stick was suddenly 6 inches away. And then another 6 inches. And another.

I realized my so-called “stick” had legs. I know it actually did have legs because when it paused briefly, and I counted them: Tiny. Four.

I grabbed my phone, the journalist in my dying to capture the evidence. In a stroke of pure luck, my hurried snapshot caught the critter next to an actual stick (a brown one) that was the same length as the lizard. That picture, and a picture of my left hand next to the same stick to provide scale, are below.

These two words, “lizard” and “underwear,” are words I never thought I’d hear in the same sentence. This is certainly not an autobiographical tale I ever planned to tell. Or yell. Or think! Not anywhere. Not even in Uganda, where I’ve learned that anything can happen.

In these anything-can-happen environments, people always tell you to “expect the unexpected.” But if it’s unexpected, how can you expect it?

After today, I know that you really can’t.

Six-word stories: doing more with less

When you have limited space for your words, you choose those words very carefully. I learned that lesson well when I was working as a reporter for the weekly newspaper The Forest Park Review. Each week, I was given a newspaper page plan with allotted space for my stories — space that was, for the most part, set in stone. I learned to condense my thoughts into 500- to 750-word stories without compromising the content.

Ernest Hemingway set a much higher (or lower, depending on how you look at it) bar for word precision with this famous six-word story.

For sale:
baby shoes,
never worn.

In a half-dozen words, Hemingway conveyed a grief and emptiness that are all the more profound and affecting because of how short the story is.

I came across the six-word story concept recently while toodling around the Internet. Apparently, it became quite the sensation on Tumblr and reddit awhile ago. (I’m a little behind the times, I know.) I recommend doing a Google image search for “six-word story” — it’ll make you smile, laugh, think, and sigh, all in a few seconds’ time.

Here is my own attempt at a six-word story. Note that I am not a fiction writer. This is an autobiographical piece based on something that happened to me this past summer.

Manhattan morning stroll:
sandals, pigeon diarrhea.

Once a copy editor, always a copy editor

Having worked as a professional copy editor, grammatical mistakes make my hair stand on end. Especially when they’re printed on signs in public places. I’ve never actually done anything about this, other than to internally cringe. Until this past week.

Below are photos I encountered on a handwritten notice advising that a drinking fountain was out of order. I immediately noticed the error in the message. I started to step away, but felt drawn to return. To fix what was wrong. I pulled a pen out of my pocket and quickly did just that. My handiwork is subtle, matching in ink color so as not to draw too much attention to itself. My goal was not to shame the writer, but simply to correct the mistake.

I’ve included before and after photos to illustrate my good grammatical deed.

Before / After:

I left the drinking fountain with a smile on my face, feeling I had done the right thing. Feeling I had done a necessary thing.

Ah, saving the world, one grammatical error at a time …

Subway syncope

The view from inside a NYC subway car, where I evaluated a woman for syncope (fainting).

Sitting on the New York City subway, immersed in the world of my true crime podcast, I suddenly heard a commotion. I looked up and saw that a group of passengers had stood up and gathered in front of me, staring at the woman directly across the aisle. She was slumped over against the shoulder of the woman next to her.

I pulled off my headphones, my ears alert. What I gathered from the murmuring passengers was that the woman had suddenly passed out. In doctor-speak, she had a “syncopal episode.” She was awake now, but obviously woozy.

Usually in this sort of situation, someone with medical qualifications presents to help — a doctor, nurse, PA, paramedic. No one did so. I realized I might be the person with the most medical qualifications in the train car. That was a scary thought.

You are 9-1-1.

The words of my CPR instructor from nearly two years ago rang in my head. That was his response when one of my classmates proposed “calling 9-1-1” as the appropriate course of action in an emergency. Of course, there is some truth to both perspectives. When an emergency happens outside the hospital, you should call 9-1-1 if that’s an option. The paramedics have equipment and knowledge that you don’t. The CPR instructor’s point was, though, that in that critical moment you are the one who is actually there and can make a difference. So if you are appropriately trained, you should act.

With that in mind, I yanked my stethoscope out of my backpack, slung it around my neck, and crossed the aisle to evaluate my “patient.”

By this time, we had pulled into the next train station. Someone alerted the conductor about the emergency, so we stayed put while the paramedics were summoned. In the meantime, I conducted my initial assessment.

I explained that I was a medical student. I cradled the woman’s wrist in my hand so I could take her pulse — faint and slow, I noted. I tried to listen to her heart but it was difficult to hear anything with everyone around me talking. I decided it was more important to take her history. I asked whether this had happened to her before, if she ate or drank sufficiently that morning, whether she had any medical problems.

“Are you a nurse or something?” asked the policeman who was standing in the open doorway of the train car, watching me.

I felt a prickle go up my spine. Clearly, old-fashioned assumptions about gender roles were very much alive, even in progressive New York City in the year 2017. I doubted he would have asked a man with a stethoscope around his neck the same question. But my goal here was to practice medicine, not feminism. So I swallowed, and calmly answered.

“I’m a medical student.”

This seemed to satisfy him. He told us the paramedics were on their way. Another passenger offered to stay with the woman who’d passed out until help arrived. The two women slowly stood up and exited the train car.

Minutes later, the doors whooshed shut, and we were on our way. I sat down, my own heart still racing.

My physician preceptor told me later that morning that as the medical professional, I should have stayed until the paramedics got there. Not necessarily because this woman was going to need more intervention. But because I could better communicate her condition to the paramedics, and because I could prevent bystanders from doing something like starting CPR if she passed out again. Lesson learned for next time.

I learned a lesson about myself that morning, too — about how I respond in an emergency. Namely, that I did respond. I remembered what I’d learned over the last two years and applied it.

In medical school, we hear about how being a physician entails great responsibility. There is a standard of professionalism, and the so-called “social contract” that we’re expected to maintain. As a medical student, I didn’t expect to put that into practice — at least, not without supervision — for some time. I’m honored I had the opportunity.

Narrative medicine: my soul’s monthly nourishment

Once a month, a handful of people gathers in a small conference room on the 14th floor of New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Baker tower for an hour-long narrative medicine group. We discuss a poem or prose piece, sometimes about medicine sometimes not, then write a reflection to a related prompt. The composition of the group varies by who can come that day: librarian, doctor, social worker, medical student, chaplain. Just like our job titles, our experience with interpreting literature, with writing, and with life itself, varies. But that’s exactly what makes the group so rich. With my crazy clerkship schedule, I can’t always make it. But I know when I do, I will leave feeling refreshed, fed. Here is the poem we read last week, along with my written reflection.

“In a landscape of having to repeat”

In a landscape of having to repeat.
Noticing that she does, that he does and so on.
The underlying cause is as absent as rain.
Yet one remembers rain even in its absence and an attendant quiet.
If illusion descends or the very word you’ve been looking for.
He remembers looking at the photograph,
green and gray squares, undefined.
How perfectly ordinary someone says looking at the same thing or
I’d like to get to the bottom of that one.
When it is raining it is raining for all time and then it isn’t
and when she looked at him, as he remembers it, the landscape moved closer
than ever and she did and now he can hardly remember what it was like.
— Martha Ronk, 2004

Prompt: Write about a time you remember looking at a photograph.

When do memories begin? I think I remember being there, tell people I do. Sitting on my pink bicycle in a Minnie Mouse bathing suit, our golden retriever Jake-a-pup reclining on the lawn in the foreground. Flying high on the swingset in my dark blue jeans and the white T-shirt with the pretty blue flowers. Hanging upside down on said swingset, my face flushed red and my eyes half closed. Blowing out candles on the green-frosted caterpillar cake that my mom baked. But are they really memories? Or just pictures in a photo album?

Inspiration via interruption

Regina likes to keep me company when I'm writing.

Regina likes to keep me company when I’m writing.

When I’m in a good mood, I write. When I’m in a bad mood, I write. When I discover something new, I write. You get the idea.

Putting amorphous thoughts into words, sentences, and paragraphs helps me interpret and understand my daily life. It helps me reach deep inside, to locate and process ideas and feelings I didn’t even know were there.

Usually, writing is a solitary task. This week though, I’ve had help from my dad’s cat Regina, as you can see. When I’m on the couch in the morning, computer in my lap, she quietly slips beside me and gingerly steps, one paw at a time, onto the keyboard. Soon her rump is on the black keys, her front paws on the track pad. Typing becomes a lost cause.

But I’m ok with this interruption. Regina stares up at me with her hazel eyes, and I don’t care about finishing my work. I scratch her head, stroke her back, and she purrs with contentment. I’m contented too, happy to have this warm, furry creature sitting with me and basking in my company. Writing can wait.

Unless I take allergy medicine, I get sneezy and snuffly around my dad’s cats. So felines are not likely in my own future. But the joy of having Regina and her brother, Ismael, sidling up next to me has gotten me thinking about what it would be like to have my own animal distraction.

I do like living by myself. I find solace in the peace and quiet. But it gets lonely, especially when I’m studying for hours on end. Maybe having another warm body around, even a little one that can’t talk, would help. Living in a little apartment, pets are tricky — and often not allowed at all. So perhaps this is something for my life beyond medical school. But it’s something to ponder.

The writing process helps me think. Apparently, this is the case even when that process is interrupted. It just goes to show that sometimes, interruptions — in the form of cats, or otherwise — are the best inspiration.

An abstract challenge

I first saw my name in print in the fall of 1999. It was my first semester of college. I had taken a journalism class because my advisor told me not to. When I fell in love with reporting and writing, my journalism TA hooked me up at the school newspaper. My first article was a feature on cider making at the local apple orchard.

That was 17 years ago. It’s still a thrill to publish — to share my written work with the world. These days, most of that takes place via this blog or the online magazine where I write a monthly column. Most of my work consists of personal essays.

But last week, I submitted a different sort of writing — a research abstract based on my work in rural Uganda this past summer. If the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) accepts my abstract, I will present a poster at the organization’s national conference in San Antonio, Texas, in May 2017.

I do have another scientific publication — a secondary authorship on a paper from the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) lab where I worked for a semester while taking my medical school prerequisites. But this would be my first time as a first author. And this would be my first foray into the world of clinical research.

Acceptance here is by no means a guarantee. And my topic is somewhat outside the typical AGS fare, so I’m not holding my breath. Even if I don’t get accepted, going through the abstract writing process was still a wonderful experience. Distilling all that work into fewer than 2,650 characters was something else. That taxed even my editorial expertise.

All that said: *fingers crossed.* I’ll find out by February.