Monday, December 3, 2012

Wordcraft -- Literature: it's good medicine

Among the things needed “to do medicine,” cardiologist John F. Harper told the audience gathered for this fall’s Literature + Medicine Conference in Dallas, the acquisition of humanitarian ideals ranks alongside medical knowledge and research. Ideals, he insisted, are “the reason many of us decided to become doctors. . . Like the doctor who came in the middle of the night and put his hand on my dad until he was free of pain.”

In pursuit of what Dr. Harper termed this “soul of medicine,” he founded a Literature and Medicine course for residents at Texas Presbyterian Health, and sits on the committee to organize a Literature + Medicine conference, now in its third year. The conference sponsors a writing competition for medical professionals and brings together speakers on the subject of the intersection of literature and medicine.

“Literature startles us,” Dr. Harper said, “and sometimes provokes us. It sharpens our listening skills (and) allows us to learn from those who have gone before us.”

This year’s major speaker, Tracy Kidder, isn’t a doctor (although his daughter is). He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose foray into medical writing began with the publication in 2003 of Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of physician Paul Farmer’s work on the global health crises of AIDS and tuberculosis in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is a wonderful piece of literature,” Dr. Harper said, introducing Kidder. “But what got my attention was the (medical) residents who would say this book changed their view of being a doctor.”

Kidder’s most recent book is Strength in What Remains, the story of Deo (Deogratias Niyizonkiza), a survivor of genocide in the East African nation of Burundi, only alive “because he left the door to his room unlocked and the men who came to kill him assumed he had already escaped,” Kidder said.

Deo fled to the United States, but found his situation only barely improved, iving on the streets, “avoiding the eyes of strangers when he entered (New York’s) Central Park at night to sleep, because they would know he was homeless.”

Kidder first saw Deo only as an anonymous face in a crowd. But with the aid of Kidder and a group of friends, Deo attained the stability to finish his education at Harvard’s School of Public Health and Dartmouth Medical School. Not content to keep this good fortune to himself, Deo returned to Burundi to establish a public clinic, Village Health Works.

“The storyteller’s job is to cast the reflections of enduring human beings on the page,” Kidder said. “I didn’t set out to go a good deed. I set out to write a good story (but) I was very much moved by what I saw. I hope I will never look at anonymous faces that same way again.”

Kidder continues his involvement with Deo and the growing influence of the Village Health Works clinic. For more information about Dr. Niyizonkiza and his work, see

And if you work in a medical profession and are interested in the Literature + Medicine conference’s 2013 writing contest, please see the information at


(Not that we couldn't see this coming, but shortly after posting today, I learned Duotrope Digest has stopped begging for money and gone to charging -- at least, beginning January 1, 2013.  Cost of a prepaid subscription is $5 a month or $50 a year, payable in U.S. dollars.  For details, including payment options, see

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