Health

A Tale of Two Professions

In the poem “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, “I am great, I have multitudes.” Many doctors will say that they felt called to practice medicine. But having a calling does not necessarily mean that it is the only gift you have to give.

Here, three women already juggling a demanding medical practice and motherhood rediscovered their love for writing and set aside time to hone their craft. Today, Diana Farid, MD, MPH, Rajani LaRocca, MD, and Dow Phumiruk, MD are award-winning children’s book authors and YA writers — a pursuit that has profoundly influenced their lives and medical practice. They spoke to Medscape about how the practice of medicine informs their writing and vice versa, and how to get your book into the eager hands of young readers.

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Medscape: When did your love for writing first emerge?

farid: I started writing as a child. I wrote poems – horrible poems. It was how I expressed myself and processed my feelings. In high school I started writing more, but I kept it to myself and didn’t think about a career as a writer. It was purely an act of exploration and expression.

LaRocca: I wrote a lot in high school and college, but nothing book length; mainly personal essays. When I went to medical school and got a residency permit, that part of my life more or less ended. I took a long break from writing.

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Phumiruk: In my youth I was always creative. My mother was a nurse and her dream for me – and therefore my dream – was to become a doctor because I did well in school. I saw the honor in her work and so I decided to go that route. I forgot everything about art.

Medscape: What brought you back to writing when you were all working doctors?

farid: From the beginning of our medical training, we are immediately confronted with mortality. We are aware that life can be very short. And for me, writing is a way to address that urgency. [Poet] Mary Oliver once said we should ask ourselves, “What is the gift I should bring to the world? What is the life I should lead?” As I was more involved in medical practice, I was well aware that I might not have the time to do these other things that I wanted to do.

Phumiruk: I rediscovered children’s books while staying at home with my kids. I fell in love with art and decided I would try it first and eventually I started writing too. I realized that I had been in medicine all this time and that I hadn’t nurtured the artistic side of myself. I swore then that I would never let that go.

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LaRocca: My kids were older and in school, and I thought, how can i be creative again? I’ve taken some online writing classes at Writers.com and some in person at GrubStreet [a creative writing center] here in Boston. For me, the hook was meeting other writers. Once I met fellow writers and we formed critique groups, there was just a lot of support and encouragement to keep going.

It was never my intention to write picture books; I thought I would write novels. But the more I thought about it, the books that made the biggest difference in my life were the ones I read as a kid. There were novels that changed the way I looked at the world.

Medscape: How has writing influenced the way you practice medicine?

farid: Writing makes me more empathetic. Not only writing, but also reading. Research into motivation and how people process joy and pain. I can be with my patients with even more empathy than before.

LaRocca: It makes me a better doctor because it’s almost a resting point for my clinical brain. So when I look at clinical things again, I feel like I see things in a new way. It also makes me a better listener because so much of the writing creates a character that resembles a real person. I’m more likely to really listen to what someone is saying and try to understand where they’re coming from.

Medscape: And vice versa. How has your medical practice influenced your writing?

LaRocca: The main things that connect the two professions are interest in and love for people. My job is to listen to people without judgment and give them the best advice I can. My medical background shows me that good people can make bad choices or that people can make decisions based on values ​​that are different from mine, and that’s okay. We need to take that nuanced view of what it means to be human in our writing and say that this is a good character, but they can make bad choices.

farid: At the free clinic in Los Angeles where I worked for many years, I saw children and gave them asthma medication. I would tell them the story of their breath’s journey to explain how the drugs would work so that they would comply and take them. My love for storytelling, art, my desire to tell stories to my [firstborn] baby, to pass on to my patients what I knew and to enable people to feel seen and valued – it all came together by wanting to write [When You Breathe].

Medscape: What advice do you have for someone looking to break into children’s book publishing?

farid: I would highly recommend anyone interested in writing for children to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Membership in that group provides many valuable resources, such as conferences, critique groups, and information about the publishing process.

Phumiruk: I would experiment with my art myself, but when I joined the SCBWI in 2011, I got much better at it and even entered some writing competitions. You have to learn your craft from something, but part of it is also about making connections – that way you can really improve your craft so it’s ready for when an agent and you meet. I’ve had a lot of rejections, but when you get positive feedback on your work, you realize you’re going in the right direction. As a doctor, you already have the discipline necessary to work hard for a publishing goal. Keep writing your stories!

LaRocca: With patience and perseverance you will get through it. Usually there is no shortcut. You need to write a good book and get going. Even if you get the agent, it doesn’t mean a publisher is going to buy your book, so it’s quite a challenge.

Medscape: How do you make time between work and family (or both) to write?

Phumiruk: As I worked more, I wrote and drew whenever I could, usually when the kids were taking a nap or at school, or waiting for them in the pick-up lane. If I had a particularly busy shift, I needed to get enough sleep before I could make an attempt at creativity.

Currently I draw during the day, preferably in the morning, and I write at 8 pm. I have an accountability partner who does the same. We write for at least 12 minutes and continue when we get into the zone.

LaRocca: I try to compartmentalize. When I see patients, I try to be extremely efficient in how I manage those tasks. At the end of the day I get all my notes done and if possible don’t go home with work. I’ve cut my clinical hours because I have a lot more books to write now, so I need time for that.

farid: Right now there is no set writing schedule and I think it’s important for me to be really honest about that. It’s as much as I can, when I can. I usually write in the evenings when the kids go to bed and on weekends. But I recognize how important it is to really be gone. I have scheduled various times away from home, such as self-retreats. In a few weeks I will be writing a weekend alone.

Medscape: What was the most rewarding part of this experience?

LaRocca: I go to schools and book festivals. I see and meet the children who have sometimes read my book. It’s the craziest feeling. Then I really feel like a writer. When I loved a book as a child, I would have given my arm to meet an author.

Writing has also helped me rediscover all these things that we love outside of medicine, and realize that we don’t have to give them up and we shouldn’t. We owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to pursue these other interests because it helps us as doctors avoid burnout and makes us feel renewed as humans.

Diana Farid, MD, MPH, is a doctor, poet, author, filmmaker and mother of four children. She graduated from Northwestern University, is an assistant professor in the Stanford Department of Medicine, and practices at the university’s student health center. Her first children’s picture book, When you breathe (Abrams), published in 2020, and her verse novel, golf (Abrams), was released in 2022 and was approved by Kirkus as one of six collections of poetry to enrich middle-aged readers. Farid is currently preparing her next novel in verse and two picture books for publication.

Rajani LaRocca, MD, attended Harvard Medical School, works as a primary care physician in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and is the mother of two daughters. her first novel, Midsummer chaos (Yellow Jacket), was published in 2019 and since then she has published three more YA novels and six picture books. LaRocca’s work has won many awards, including the notable 2022 John Newbery honor for her recent novel, Red, White and Whole (Quill Tree Books, 2021). Her next novel is slated for release in March.

Dow Phumiruk, MD, graduated from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock and worked as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Parker, Colorado. The mother of three daughters retired clinically in 2015 to devote herself full-time to her work as an author and illustrator, although she still teaches part-time at Rocky Vista University College of Medicine. Phumiruk illustrated her first children’s book, Maya Lin: artist-architect of light and lines (Holt), in 2017. It received many awards, including NSTA Best STEM Book of 2018. She wrote her first children’s book, Mela and the Elephant (Sleeping Bear Press), in 2018. Phumiruk has had 20 book contracts to date.

Andrea Goto is a regular contributor to Medscape. See her previous work here and here.

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