To my forever work wife [you know who you are],
Got the check in the mail—thanks for inviting (and paying!) me to help out with your project. It really took me back to all of the events we’ve worked together: the schlepping in boxes, the cloaked chaos of purses and coats and extra supplies hidden systematically under the sagging folding table, the being nice to strangers, the lulls when there were no strangers to be nice to. I’d almost forgotten what it was like. Before I left publishing, I was always hopeful we’d land at the same organization; I envisioned myself once again walking into your make-shift office and lying down on the carpet while you wordlessly opened your snack drawer and tossed me whatever chocolate-covered Kirkland-brand treat your mother had gifted you that week. I thought we’d rage-walk in circles around public art statues, and I’d feel the warmth of camaraderie emanating from your Gchat dot, glowing green late into the night. I don’t mean to reminisce solely about how we vented our frustrations, but I know, for me at least, you made the negatives tolerable enough that they didn’t outweigh what I loved about working in literary arts. This is basically my long-winded way of saying: it was really nice working with you again!
I’m really impressed by the career you’ve created for yourself. You may call it piecemeal, but I love how your being a free agent in the arts is a work of art in and of itself. I know there’s a part of you that is always on the edge of burning it all down for a salary and benefits, and I can’t say I blame you. A lot of people have applauded me for leaving the arts to pursue nursing because they perceive medicine as more challenging and more rewarding, but the truth is, it’s harder to stay. When I first left, I felt like I was giving up, because I grew up believing that to succeed in this world was a bigger accomplishment than following a straightforward path. But I’ve realized there’s nothing straightforward about anyone’s path, and that I didn’t so much choose mine as follow the breadcrumbs of praise every English teacher threw this bookworm’s way. In a way, nursing feels like the first real career choice I’ve ever made.
I’m lucky that I got my humanities education and experience first, for a plethora of reasons, but perhaps most selfishly, to truly appreciate the unique position I find myself in. Working as a medical scribe while waiting for school to start has been the perfect intersection of my background in writing and editing and my interest in medicine. I get to live every day inside Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, but instead of writing as her real or scripted character, I am a fly on the wall in both encounters. In my training for the position, we were told our most important job was to write the history of present illness, or more colloquially, the patient’s story of why they are coming to the doctor that day. I write the birth story of a new mother in for postpartum checkup, the gratuitous aches and pains of age, the life behind the numbers on a diabetic’s glucometer. I write these stories in the patients’ own words, and am then challenged to embody the voice of their doctor, a person with infinitely more medical education and experience than I have. It’s sort of a marriage of ghostwriting and translating, and in doing so, I get to learn a whole new set of vocabulary. You may have come in for a nosebleed, but when I write as your doctor, I call this epistaxis. Vomiting sounds less unpleasant when I refer to it as emesis. If you have joint pain, you may be examined for crepitus, a grating between bone and cartilage. I love how visceral the etymology of words feels in this context, how primal and basic. The base “pyro-” no longer conjures up images of a fire wreaking havoc on the land, but a slow internal burn initiated by our immune system to protect us from microbe invaders.
Every twenty minutes I’m met with a new scenario, a writing prompt I didn’t ask for, and, armed with my new vocabulary, I feel more inspired to write than ever before. The catch-22 here is that I cannot write about what I see in any public way because HIPAA, quite rightfully, precludes me from doing so. It is strange to make the move from publishing, a world where a goal of writing is widespread readership, to medicine, where a person’s story is fiercely private and every effort is taken to protect it. And unlike publishing, I know exactly whom my writing will most impact, the patients themselves, and while they are never my audience, I write for them. My writing on any given encounter is therefore confined to the tidy note I help add to the record, and while the goal is accuracy and clarity, I cannot escape the writer in me, and I constantly find myself pausing over phrasing, searching for just the right way to convey the nuances that make this UTI different than all the others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am frequently running behind on my notes.
I started scribing as a way to test the proverbial waters, to see if I could realistically excel in an environment where I wore the equivalent of pajamas to work every day and conversations didn’t center around the latest faux pas in children’s books. My first day I was happy and overwhelmed and I loved every patient I saw for the mere fact that they were there. Everyone who came in was trying to be a better version of themselves, to make their pain a little more tolerable, and, for whatever reason we decide to stay, isn’t that why a lot of us enter the arts in the first place? When I started thinking about nursing, I thought I wanted to work in hospice, but I now realize what interests me about end of life care is the person-centered, palliative care approach to medicine at the core of the hospice philosophy. I can be a nurse in any field and apply these principles to my work with patients because, truthfully, everyone is suffering. To view patients as more than a constellation of chronic diseases, and complaints as more than riddles to be solved, are things that a lot of medical professionals need to be taught—and while I have a lot to learn, I’m ahead when it comes to understanding the complexities of the human condition, precisely because of my background in the arts.
With my very limited medical knowledge, which will soon become an overwhelmingly huge part of my days, everything is an act of discovery, and I’m drunk on the newness and promise of my next career. And while I frequently do miss being a part of the book world, there are days like today, the annual Twin Cities Book Festival, when I don’t miss it at all. Instead of standing in an unheated State Fair outbuilding in thirty-degree weather, slinging books in fingerless gloves and cursing the shoddy internet, I get to write to you, one of my all-time favorite people, from the comfort of an armchair and remember working TCBF with a fondness that can only be achieved through the distance of memory. I wonder if you are there today, shivering beneath your layers, and who’s bringing you coffee in my absence.
This piece is part of a series of letters under the theme Getting Out (on the outs, and ins thereof, of art), guest edited by Moheb Soliman.