English Major and Pre-Med: Reconciling Medicine and Literature through Stories

By: Stephanie Koo

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“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (Creative Commons/ Flickr)

It’s a normal day at the hospital. I, a valued member of the Emergency Department translational research team, approach a patient to enroll them in one of our studies (read: extremely socially awkward girl, wearing scrubs too big for her, bothers sick and crying kids and their sleep-deprived parents, to ask them questions about the types of food they like to eat or what they think about marijuana.)

Sometimes, the parents ask me if I’m an undergraduate student, and what I’m studying. I dutifully reply, “English and Biology,” and there’s usually a remark like “Oh, what a strange combination!” and if they’re receptive enough, I launch into a speech that basically apologizes for being an English major: that I want to be an effective communicator as a physician; that sometimes scientists lack the people skills, and I felt that physicians especially should empathize more; that I think that science needs to get out of its ivory tower and reach the public better—and what better way to do that than through writing?

This time, however, I approached a patient who is there for a mental health emergency and has been there nearing on three days. The exhausted parent is less than friendly when they exclaim, “Why the heck would you want to be an English major? How on earth does that teach you about medicine?”

I’m not really in the mood to explain myself today, and not to this parent. Today, instead of going on my spiel, I say simply, “Ma’am, I just really like writing.” And I think that’s the most truthful answer I’ve given.

I’ve tried different costumes since I’ve arrived at UConn. Feeling insecure about entering as an English major without a job in mind, and not really wanting to be a teacher, I switched into Animal Science with the intent of being a vet. But horses kinda scared me, and I was an Asian from the suburbs with no intention of running a pig farm, and I was frustrated at the lack of pet legislation and how veterinary medicine as a system was run.

I added my English major back as soon as I could and felt a rush of relief: I knew how to do this. I wasn’t looked at funny when mentioning my love for creative writing. I could write a 15-page essay the night before and present a mostly coherent argument. I could scoff about the patriarchy and racism and learn ways to address it through writing. I could read and write scholarly articles about fanfiction and video games and have it recognized as legitimate, never mind that pretty much everyone else would be thinking, “Jeez, English majors…

But science wouldn’t let me go—I had enjoyed my biology classes too much. So, as some writers do, I launched myself into nature. I always liked the outdoors. There were lots of nature writers, so it was fairly easy to imagine myself among them—Rachel Carson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aldo Leopald. Who knows—maybe I could go into nature documentaries be a David Attenborough, not that I could ever have the old British man voice necessary for that job. Never mind that I couldn’t name a bird by its call to save my life.

Three months later, after a summer internship with a wildlife refuge, and scarred from head to toe by poison ivy (it somehow even got inside my shirt?), I reconsidered. I had abandoned veterinary medicine, but never really gave human medicine full thought, thinking that it was stereotypical of me to want to become a doctor—my parents never pushed me towards this career, but I was self-conscious that other people would think that my “culture” forced me into this role (not to discount fellow Asians who did grow up in families that strongly emphasized the career). But something clicked within me.

I was drawn to the stories, and they were familiar because health has been an integral part of all our lives. The stories, past and present, of women who fought for the rights to their own bodies. I was angered by the injustice of things done to vulnerable populations in the name of medicine, but also proud of writers for exposing them, like Rebecca Skloot and the story of Henrietta Lacks. I read different views on disability, arguments for and against medicalization and what “quality of life” might mean in different contexts. And stories about death and loss, especially.

There’s something poetic about the art of medicine, and how, ever since our existence began, we’ve been fighting death, knowing fully well that we are always going to lose.

I wanted to become a part of that messy system, problems and all. I want to be that researcher, the physician—to understand the scientific process— but also read and write about it. And maybe that will affect other people. And I found that, like nature writing, there were also physician-writers. Even though they were mostly men, I now saw that as a challenge.

I think that I decided to do this in a good time—I’m not going to be the only English, arts, or humanities major when I eventually get to medical school. The medical community recognizes that there is a disconnect between the public and science, especially now, and the need for more empathetic physicians. A recent article by the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote that “medical students with undergraduate degrees in the humanities perform as well as pre-meds with science backgrounds but tend to have better empathy and communication skills, and a more patient-centered outlook,” and more medical humanities-specific majors are emerging to specifically address this growing trend.

The MCAT (medical school admissions test) even was changed to include more topics such as sociology. My pre-med advisor says I “will kill the CARS (critical analysis and reading section) on the MCAT” solely based on my being an English major—not that he has ever seen any of my writing. I’m looking at medical schools with the option of learning about narrative medicine, such as the one in Columbia, which is multidisciplinary in nature, as medicine should be: it “seeks to strengthen the overarching goals of medicine, public health, and social justice, as well as the intimate, interpersonal experiences of the clinical encounter.”

Double majoring isn’t easy. I can’t write my novel when I have a biochem exam to study for, and science doesn’t come as naturally to me as English does. But seeing science through the context of medicine, and medicine through the context of stories and a larger human experience, helps explore connections past the boxes we sort ourselves into.

Reflections on Writing, Medicine, and More with Nikki Rubin, former LRR Poetry Editor by Stephanie Koo (2016)

Interview by Steph Koo

I had the opportunity to speak with Nikki Rubin, LRR alum, survivor of UCONN medical school, newly-minted doctor extraordinaire, over video chat this past weekend. Our talk ranged from writing experiences, to her decision to choose OB/GYN as her specialty, to my own anxieties over choosing the pre-medical path. Here are a few things that we talked about, and that I am happy to share with our literary magazine community! Whether you are interested in pursuing medicine as a career or not, everyone is impacted by the decisions of our doctors, and realize that there are more literary doctors than may be stereotypically expected!

On her undergraduate experience:

As an undergraduate, Nikki stayed away from the pre-med group and became involved in her other interests. Nikki’s focus has always been on the people she serves, and she double majored as an individualized major in Human Rights and biology. She has always wanted to be a doctor: “I would watch the show ER as a kid, and my parents would say, ‘Don’t tell your preschool teachers I let you stay up until 10pm!’”

On the lit mag scene:

The writing bug bit her in her middle school years, her first experience with literary magazines. Back then, it was “a typewriter, a copier, and a bunch of staples” holding their work all together. She continued writing throughout high school, and came to UConn, looking for a writing community. After friends and winning a couple of the Creative Writing Department’s contests brought her into the Creative Writing community at UConn, she became involved with the Long River Review. Nikki spent her sophomore year on the poetry panel, and her senior year as poetry editor — Long River Review 2010 and 2012. Her prize-winning poetry can be found on our website in LRR 2013, 2011, 2010, and 2009.

When she entered UConn Medical School, she found that she was not the only one in her class with a creative flair. “The medical community is far more creative than the stereotype of a medical professional lets on,” she said, accounting for the musicians, writers, and artists she met in the next four years of her life.

She was a part of the founding of UConn Health’s literary magazine, Anastomoses*, meaning the reconnection of two previously connected branching structures, like blood vessels (link: anastomoseslitmag.com). Anastomoses is an online-only literary magazine for the UConn Health community. She describes Anastomoses as “a different experience from Long River Review. We were a smaller magazine and were less selective.”

On writing:

I asked about her own writing. Among working, studying, research, and extracurriculars, Nikki describes herself as “not the best model for regimental writing,” but she has found that writing has always come across accidentally. She notes that as a medical provider, “it’s a lot harder to write poetry when you’re used to writing medical writing, which is often restrictive.” She recounted looking forward to journaling for a class during her first year in medical school, which allowed medical students to reflect some things they may not have been ready to process. Narrative medicine often helps with processing and contemplating upon the experiences that people experience within medical situations, from seeing a cadaver to watching a suffering patient or having your first patient pass away.

On Medicine:

I was interested about picking a specialty, and Nikki gave me an overview of her decision making process. “I came into medical school thinking about pediatrics, but being able to choose

The stimulation of the OR (operating room) was something that peaked her interest before deciding on the OB/GYN path. “As a woman with an interest in surgery, I felt as if I had an obligation to pursue my interest,” she said, but ultimately, “my interest in human rights, and the interactions I had with my patients, were more important to me.”

Nikki said that if she wasn’t a doctor, she would maybe be a teacher, do social or nonprofit work, or work within public health. We also discussed that if she could change anything about th emedical system, she would remove barriers patients and doctors have to healthcare, such as the large influence by money-driven insurance companies. “There’s always a third party in the room, and they’re not as invested in patients as you are. They are driven by the numbers.” This effects how a doctor can interact with their patient, from the types of healthcare practices that can be implemented to the amount of time a doctor can see a patient.

For a student who wants to become a doctor like myself, this may be the most comforting piece of advice: Do what you want to do, not something that you think you’re supposed to do. Your passion and your interests will carry you through.

“You have a rapid shift in identity in medical school,” Nikki said. “You’re in this really weird world where you’re not a layperson or a doctor.”

Steph Koo is a third year student majoring in English and Biology. She is the editor of the Fiction panel of Long River Review.

Graduating as an English Major: An Open Letter to Myself Right Now

By Therese Masotta

(Photo/Therese Masotta)

(Photo/Therese Masotta)

To The Current Me,

This morning I woke up with you, like I always do, and it was early and you were just as confused as you were the night before you went to sleep, and everything seemed surreal as it always does. It’s the last week of classes and we’re about to graduate.

As an English Major.

Today you braced yourself for the inevitable question that you might receive four times before the day closes: “so what are you going to do after you graduate?” The question-asker will stand there with a big smile on his/her face that starts to fade as you shrug your shoulders (I find your answer is better received if you lift your hands up, do a little “I don’t know!” dance, and make sure you’re smiling the entire time). “Do you, like, have a job or something?” is the next question that comes.

And then you have to find a way to explain your objectives in five minutes, because this question asker is probably a passer-by. This is the most difficult part of the conversation, because you want to sound intelligent and prepared, but you actually have no idea what you’re doing. Your philosophy on life comes in handy here, because it sounds intelligent and doesn’t require a solid plan to carry out. Use your inspirational, adventurous outlook on life to charm the question-asker, and most importantly shut him or her up.

You know there’s no reason to worry, though. English graduates come back to UConn all the time with successful jobs. It’s extra exciting because they’re all really, really happy. You sit in these talks they run thinking, “That’s going to be ME one day!” because you know you’re being educated by a supportive UConn community who is definitely setting you up for success. You know you have the drive within you to create, work hard, and end up in New York City fresh off your friend’s couch going to a job that will make you enough money one day. You’re going to be just fine.

But I’ve noticed all those inspirational post-grads only talk about their success and the couch they did indeed live on. When they get to the hard parts, they laugh and widen their eyes saying, “OH yeah, that was a tough time.”

So maybe now you’ve figured out why I’m writing this letter to you, current Me, an English Major standing on the edge of graduation, arms flailing, ready to embrace the impending fall. You know you are going to be fine eventually, but you can’t think about the future because you’re about to fly into the real world at maximum velocity.

I’m here to tell you that you already are fine. Not just because you don’t know what you’re doing (which is exciting and free!) but mostly because you are more talented than you think. It’s so easy to feel inadequate when you don’t have a solid plan or answer for the question-askers of the world, when there isn’t just one job that you’re trained to do, or when you feel under trained for all the jobs you can do. Which is why I’ve got two main questions for you.

If you’ve made it this far, you must have an adequate GPA, even if it isn’t stunning. Can you remember all the classes you’ve taken? Yes, some of them were terribly boring, but if they were required, they were so for a reason. Look at how much you know about literature and whatever your minor may have been! That’s a wealth of knowledge.

Next we have the image-building question. How do you want people to see you? Sure, you don’t have complete control over this, but it’s important to have a goal or mission statement in mind. This can be easily regulated by which books you like to talk about and what you say about them. If you’re going to share the truth that you actually dislike the Harry Potter series, be prepared with a damn good reason. If you’re going to adore the Scarlet Letter, you better know why. “It’s just really good (or bad) writing,” is never, ever a valid reason.

Use these two bits to propel you into the world and keep you afloat during your tough time. It’s terribly exciting not knowing what you’re going to do. In this way, everything becomes an adventure. And I can’t wait to see the strength you gain from it.

Sincerely,

Your Current Self

Therese Masotta is a senior English major/Psychology minor with a concentration in Creative Writing. She is the social media coordinator and member of the creative nonfiction panel for the Long River Review.

MFA—Recipe For Success or Disaster?

By Kate Monica

“Does any (MFA) program really improve anybody, as much as simply identifying them? And, after identifying them, not ruining them?” —Chang-rae Lee, On Such A Full Sea

“University of Otago” taken by Ulanwp on June 29, 2014 (Creative Commons)

“University of Otago” taken by Ulanwp on June 29, 2014 (Creative Commons)

Getting an MFA seems like the natural progression for any English major looking to take a swing at making a career of writing. At first glance, it sounds like a dream—it provides participants with a small, passionate community of writers devoted to nothing but honing their craft for two years of uninterrupted creative immersion. A lot of the struggle of writing is finding the time—between school and work and the occasional social interaction, working on that short story collection or novel you started freshman year can fall to the wayside. The luxury of having two years to focus solely on perfecting your literary voice couldn’t be more enticing.

In December, with graduation looming at the end of the semester, a few of my friends and I began looking into different graduate programs. At first, we all agreed that getting an MFA in poetry would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. Poetry isn’t exactly a cash cow—if we wanted to make a living as poets, we would need to teach to supplement our income. We already knew that an MFA was not a vocational degree, and having an MFA would not guarantee a teaching job. But it would certainly help, and it would give us the time, resources, and networking opportunities to start publishing enough that eventually we could have the credentials we needed. Getting an MFA seemed like a win-win-win situation.

Then I read an article by Steve Roggenbuck, a self-described “internet poet” and video artist who has amassed a large following on social media for his funny, poignant YouTube videos and six poetry collections. Roggenbuck, a controversial cult-icon equal parts admired and admonished for his experimentalism and understanding of Internet and meme culture, is not the kind of writer one would expect to flourish in academia. What attracts readers and viewers to Roggenbuck’s particular brand of art is his steadfast dedication to being un-pretentious and accessible. Personally, when I first stumbled upon Roggenbuck, I was energized and elated to see someone interacting with a traditionally careful, melancholic form in such a freewheeling manner. He seemed to be actively subverting all the standard values and conventions of poetry in a way that bordered on parody. I couldn’t tell if he loved poetry so much he wanted to create his own brand new take on the form, or if he thought it was stupid and was making fun of all of us for taking it so seriously.

Needless to say, when I found out he had written an article about his own MFA experience, I was surprised to see he had even attempted to enter such a straight-laced wing of the art world. It just didn’t seem compatible with who he is as an artist. The article, however, which has since been deleted, delves into all the reasons Roggenbuck felt an MFA was not right for him. Thanks to a smattering of ‘think pieces’ reacting to Roggenbuck’s initial article, a few of his choice quotes remain:

“my #1 main problem with my MFA experience:

i was seeking feedback from people who had different taste from me. why did i think that MFA students and older poets in academia would be an ideal writing group for me? they’re not really the main audience i’m trying to reach. some were a closer fit than others, but usualy i disregarded most of the feedback they gave me, because their comments just reflected how much they didn’t ‘get it.’”

The article had many more reasons outlining why Roggenbuck felt compelled to leave the program at Columbia College Chicago, but this seemed to be his biggest issue. To me, it seems like Roggenbuck may have been being a bit close-minded. While it’s frustrating to come up against a wall of disapproval when you’re trying to do something new and innovative, feedback can almost always be used productively. Even if his professors didn’t seem to “get him,” I’m sure some of their advice was valuable in at least encouraging him to look at other methods and styles to investigate in order to fine-tune his voice. Still, his comment does bring up an interesting point: can getting an MFA too early in your career do more harm than good?

For many young writers, the only consistent ‘voice’ they have is the voice in their head telling them their stuff is terrible. Writing without a backlog of awards and publications and legitimate credentials is more an exercise in self-doubt than anything. For a writer coming straight out of undergrad without the kind of world-weary, quiet confidence that comes only with age and experience, a small community of like-minded writers could hurt their chances of developing a truly unique voice and sensibility. Being insecure and malleable could work against their inner impulse to defend their own stylistic choices if their more established peers and professors seemed to disagree. While a willingness to absorb feedback and take criticism is necessary in order to grow, being too quick to abandon their own instincts might rob young writers of their courage to be truly creative.

Taking into account the overwhelmingly positive reports I’ve gotten from professors and grad students about their own MFA experiences, and the occasional unfortunate encounter poets like Roggenbuck have had with the program, the only answer to whether or not an MFA is the right choice depends on the individual. I think that at the right time, with the right amount of confidence, an MFA program can be an ideal petri dish for growing your creative talents far beyond the bounds of anything you could’ve imagined.

It’s all about being in the right mindset. If, as a writer, you feel you trust your own instincts enough to know when to take criticism to heart and when to stick to your guns, then an MFA program should definitely be something you can handle with grace and positivity. But for a lot of undergrad writers just now entering the world after existing almost exclusively in the vacuum of academia for their entire lives, confidently disagreeing with professors or peers goes against the grain of what they’ve been taught.

Excluding all the other important factors that play into deciding on a graduate degree, including the cost and length of the program, being mentally prepared for such an intensive artistic endeavor is the determining factor on whether the experience is beneficial or detrimental. As with anything, it may only be a matter of time.

Kate Monica is a senior English major at UConn and the Poetry Editor for the Long River Review.