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April 1, 2016

Reading : Books

                                                                                                                                                 Pacific Ocean, Alaska. June 2010

My patients are often surprised that I majored in English. The truth is, it is fairly common for people in the health field to have strong interests in the humanities and creative arts. When I was applying to medical school, I was told that 50% of applicants majored in science, meaning that half majored in a non-science field. There are dozens of physician-writer role models, dating from William Carlos Williams (back in the day when doctors saw patients in their homes and took care of entire towns), to the recent popularity of Paul Kalanithi, the author neurosurgeon who found that the practice of medicine offered real-life insight into the values of literature. Ideally, medicine provides a vast forum to engage with and learn about the human condition, both physically and psychologically, that enriches a writer's experience and ability to write. Practically, medicine requires at least seven years, and often a decade or more, of intense studying and training, and the time we are able to spend with people most often blurs by us through work-worn eyes and hearts heavy with fatigue.

In his novel When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Kalanithi describes how it wasn't until he was diagnosed with terminal cancer that he realized he no longer had the time to put off his exploration of literature and writing. For many of us who enter medicine with a love of books and art, our pursuit of real-life humanity entails sacrificing the creative expression of the humanities. But reading is such a rich window into the experiences of others, and writing such an important way to reflect upon these experiences as well as process our own. In a profession that inherently deals with people, and in any life in general, books are an invaluable way of learning about others and ourselves.

And so I try hard to keep books a part of my work-life balance. It's not always attainable but here I hope to share some ways that I try, as well as books that have been formative, educational, or simply enjoyable--all elements I've found useful in moments of challenging work.

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