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Pen and scalpel: Doctor-writers contemplate humanities, hope, and healing

The Medical Humanities is an emerging field that focuses on the interdisciplinary—navigating the lines that intersect healing as a science and an art, and the healers who combat disease and decipher the meaning of life and death.

“The body is a living story…[A] witness of our mortality, the physician can read with scientific precision and humanistic compassion…The writer-doctor possesses the power of language to transform that pain into something bearable, into something enduring.” 

Such was how Dr. Ronald Baytan, director of the University’s Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center, framed the synergy between literature and medicine in his opening remarks for Writing Amidst/Against the Pandemic: Doctors Who Write held last September 3 via Google Meet.

The online forum featured three Filipino medical doctors and award-winning authors who explored the value of writing for solace and sustenance; solidarity and service.

Need to survive

The uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic has been weighing down on everyone, including medical workers. It is particularly challenging to be fighting a disease not so well understood, and with case tallies surging alongside reports of colleagues contracting the virus, obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) Dr. Alice Sun-Cua could only “try [her] best not to give in to the fear.”

It can get very overwhelming as it often feels as though there is no end in sight, acknowledged Dr. Noel Pingoy. Drawing strength from his patients and from prose and poetry, the hematologist-oncologist quoted Albert Camus’ The Plague, “‘I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when all this ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.’”

“I have to take care of myself so I’m able to take care of others…I have to keep myself alive so I can serve my patients,” furthered Pingoy, who returned to practice as a COVID volunteer doctor.

Cua echoed, “It is important for the healers to heal.” To “keep sane”, she had taken to daily journal writing in the early mornings, finding that the quiet offers a “space to think” and to “be in touch with what is within”.

For the OB-GYN, writing was comfort—providing a semblance of regularity, normalcy, and sustenance amid uncertainty. “Literature helps us find meaning in what we do,” she expressed.

‘Magnifying the patient voice’

Beyond a sense of solace for the doctor-writers, writing also allots physicians a greater platform to reach out to society and to understand patients beyond a purely biological standpoint. Dr. Ronnie Baticulon, a pediatric neurosurgeon, explained, “You have to think about the social, political, and economic decisions when you diagnose a disease. Does the patient have the money to buy the medication?”

Introspection and self-critique, he noted, are common undertakings for writers and doctors who “look back and…[ask] what have I done wrong?”—be it in the operating room or in the essay composed. For Baticulon, it is important for doctor-writers to “become advocates of [the] patients” by “magnifying their voices”; through this, both medicine and writing become rooted in the “core [value] of service”.

“Doctors with humanities [training] are more compassionate,” Cua put forward. Pingoy shared a similar sentiment, saying, “You get to empathize more with the patient. Literature is about sharing life experiences with other people.”

Encouraging doctors to “honor patients’ stories”, he expounded, “Listen to [patients]; be attuned to them not just [in terms of] the disease, but as human beings who need other people.” Inasmuch as knowing the clinical and technical aspects of medicine can heal and save lives, Pingoy asserted that understanding the “nuances of language” would be equally vital in caring for patients.

In service

“Filipino patients have not been given what they deserve. We can do so much more for our patients. Every single life matters,” Baticulon emphasized.

Perhaps a larger reason why doctors—and patients, too—are taking to writing in the time of pandemic is because they have experienced firsthand the trepidation, uncertainty, and desolation that infiltrate these dire circumstances. By and large, they hope that the work they do in the clinic and in storytelling can in some way help mend human welfare.

“No one’s really expected to write, but we do have to write,” said Baticulon, admitting that he was finding it difficult to write given the “not normal” circumstances. “We really need to communicate better…It’s just like talking to a patient, but it’s the entire country. We have to make them understand: this is where we’re at, this is what we’re facing, this is what we need to do.”

This is especially important, according to Cua, as “guidelines can change daily” depending on what the scientific community discovers about the virus. As such, communication would be crucial in enabling citizens to have agency over the decisions they make in any context they find themselves in. “It is important and empowering to educate our patients. The more they know, the more we can help curtail the spread of the infection,” the OB-GYN discussed.

As healthcare professionals traverse the thin line between the living and the dead, surviving the day is often a small victory in itself. “You just live it by the day. You just give it your best shot every day. You do what needs to be done for that patient every day,” Baticulon affirmed. 

“Bearing witness” to the horizon of sickness, traumas, injustices, recoveries, and relief unveils a canvas of complex narratives, Pingoy recognized. With the hospital ward as the setting, these empathic and “faithful accounts”, rather than detached or over-glorified constructions, enrich the local literature—the doctor-writer comprehends, contemplates, and confronts social realities and human experience.

For Baticulon, writing is efficacious: “We see what it’s like on the frontline; we know there’s a problem…[But] it’s part of our duty to give everyone a message of hope—sometimes that’s all people have left, and we can’t just deprive them of that.”

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