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.

On (Not) Writing While Traveling

By: Stephanie Koo

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Would it be blasphemous to suggest that I didn’t have the time of my life while I was abroad?

I should have expected to feel this way, in all honesty. At the time, the opportunity that I had received felt like a once in a lifetime adventure. When else was I going to be able to spend an entire three weeks, during the last winter break of my undergraduate career, being able to travel to China, Malaysia, and Singapore with my dad? When I won the UConn IDEA grant (which, as ungrateful as I sounded in the first sentence of this blog, I am deeply thankful for), I was already a bundle of nerves. At first, I couldn’t tell if this reaction was from the good or the bad form of anxiety.

I was planning on visiting my relatives in both Singapore and Malaysia (people I haven’t seen in thirteen years), as well as my Ancestral Home in both China and Malaysia. I felt like I was going back to my roots. I thought that I was going to find myself in my new surroundings, experience something that would light a fire within my soul, and maybe even write the next Great Ethnic Novel, etc. etc. You know – the easy stuff.

Look, I’ve always scoffed at those posts that I see on my Facebook newsfeed — people who embark on their journey with “nothing but a backpack and an open mind” (No one that I know has actually said that, but it’s not that far from those selfies with impoverished children along with those captions about how seeing these people’s living conditions has, like totally, changed their lives). I tried to get around this narrative by becoming invested in travel blogs, but the only ones that kept me entertained were the ones about food. I’m fine with traveling—I love my family’s annual camping trips—but something about leaving the US for southeast Asia remained completely daunting.

The planning process was draining: from booking plane tickets and researching hotels to making sure that I didn’t miss any of the attractions that I probably wouldn’t be able to see for at least another decade – if ever. Soon, I promised myself, the planning would be over and the trip would finally become enjoyable. Then, at last, I was going to start feeling inspired. I was going to start writing again. I had been suffering from writer’s block for almost an entire year before receiving the grant from UConn. For an unknown reason, the only thing that I was able to write was starting (and never finishing) a series of angst-y fanfics and whiny diary rants. Once I saw my relatives and, like, connected with them, I was convinced that I would become inspired. Words would flow from my fingers! I had a blog set up and I was ready to go.

But no.

It turned out to be difficult to find the time to write when my relatives were making me eat all the food that I had previously been missing out on. My father and I, my relatives’ poor, poor US kin, needed to consume everything RIGHT NOW because, obviously, who knew when we would get the chance again? I was surprised when I got back to find that I hadn’t gained any weight on my trip—I must have sweat off the pounds in the 90-100 degree heat. I found myself longing (yes, I realize how crazy I am about to sound) for those cold UConn winters.

And since my dad, who had made it his mission to become my personal photographer, had come on the trip with me, I should have been prepared for posing next to everything that he deemed worthy of immortalizing with a photo.

I should have expected this, but for an awkward introvert like me I felt drained at the end of each day. I was joined at the hip with my dad for an entire three weeks while socializing with people I had only met a handful of times before. It almost didn’t matter how awesome and welcoming my relatives were.

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Take early mornings and late nights, throw in a bad internet connection, mix in numerous hours combing through four cameras worth of photos (literally thousands), and what you have is a recipe for a series of late (read: very very very late) blog posts.

At the time, I feel very guilty for not writing (even though I ultimately don’t think that anyone cared as much as I did). I felt like I was letting Future Me down. Would I look back at this time, these precious moments with my dad and my family, and think, “Wow, why didn’t you record your grandmother talking more? Why didn’t you smile more? Why were you so grumpy?”

I took notes when I could. I soaked in as much of the atmosphere, the stories, and the people as I could handle. I spent time with my last living grandparent, my aunts, my uncles, and my cousins. I learned a lot about my dad and the life that him and my mom had left behind.

But what I came back to the US, I quickly realized that the reason why I felt so disconnected during the trip is because my relatives’ lives are not my life. My parents, who grew up Chinese but lived in Malaysia, met in the United States. I was born in the US. Malaysia, and even more removed, China and Singapore, were never true homes for me; this was never what my life could have been.

I don’t know if I have changed as a person because of my trip, but what I do know that I now have a whole jumbled, contradicting mess of feelings towards my heritage (Yay). I guess it’s only fitting that I am finally able to process my thoughts and write now that – four weeks later—I am on my home turf.

Lights in the Night By Stephanie Mei Koo (2015)

Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Second Place (2015)

Her bedroom lights haven’t been off for twenty-four years.

Oh, it is silly, isn’t it — to be scared of the dark? Yet here she is, shivering in her nightgown, far too tired to go to sleep.

She likes to think she is a reasonable woman. Those superstitions did not haunt her when she was younger, and why change now? Eighty-four is far too old for change. Eighty-four is far too old for such nonsense.

But she’s only that strong woman by the light of day. In the day, there are grandchildren and daughters and sons. There are hugs and simple I love yous and crayon drawings presented to her with proud smiles. There is the warmth and the smell of grass, and the colors, bathed by the sun, shine down on this moment, on this pedestal of her life.

She can’t see them at night.

In the night, he visits. His winter skin glows. He’s younger and his eyes are sharp, but his words are sharper and her heart is a soft peach. She tries to remember a time when they were happy.

You’re eighty-four. You’re supposed to be happy, she reminds herself sternly. The next thought is softer, sad:
Why can’t I be happy?

She shudders and tries to close her eyes, but she knows fully well that she’ll never get a good night’s sleep with the light on.

***

“Who are you?” he barks. “Get out of my house!”

The doctors said he wouldn’t be able to stand after the last episode, but he sure as hell is trying.

She blinks back tears that won’t fall. “It’s me, hun. It’s me.” But who are you?

He shakes and he stutters but she can’t tell if of anger or something else. She reaches for the phone – to call the police or the hospital?

“You aren’t my wife,” he manages to say. He is sitting down again but somehow this is worse. He is shaking his bottle at her. He’s not supposed to drink. “My-my wife’s twenty-two. She’s perfect. Not old. Not like you. I don’t love you.”

“Please remember,” she whispers. She hates this. She hates his twisted smile. She hates the tone of his voice. She hates standing here, quivering against a wall, a wailing cave-canary. She hates herself for wanting to hate him. Because she can’t. Not when this man here isn’t him.

Or is it?

The man laughs. It’s a crow’s laugh; the sound hurts her ears.

“Go away, Stella.”

The doctors say he needs to be monitored 24/7, but she flees before he could destroy her further. She knows it’s futile. She has given up on telling him her name isn’t Stella.

***

Small fires wink at her atop a cake and she kills them with a swift blow. Ghost-smoke trail from the candles and the room is suddenly dark. She doesn’t care. She can feel him beaming at her and he pulls her in for a hug.

“Happy—wait, how…” He shakes his head. “What’s…?”

Her eyebrows push together slightly and her delight feels like it was blown out, too. “What?”

He shakes his head again; his lips purse. “Nothing… Stella.”

She laughs at first. “I’m not ‘Stella,’ silly. Who’s that?” She stops laughing when she sees his green eyes cloud. Then they clear and he kisses her greying hair and she rolls her eyes.

“Happy birthday, Ellie-bean.”

***

Her husband comes home late nowadays. “Just work, Elle,” he calls it. “It’s busy at the office.”

“At 2:24AM in the morning?” she wants to protest, but he looks so tired, so worn out, (so guilty, but she doesn’t want to dwell on that), so she just motions him into her arms. He grasps her like she’s a lifeline. She squeezes back.

One night she stepped out of the tub and her raisin-skin did not swell back. One day he woke and his hair was eaten by the pillow. Yes, they’re still chasing their kids around, but soon enough Peter and Elena would be out of the house and on their way to their own lives.

“When things calm down,” he promises, “we can travel the globe. Like we said we would when we were young.”

“I’d love that,” she whispers.

“And I’ll always love you.”

Elle chooses to believe him.

***

“Wow,” Peter says. “Is that my sister?” The five-year-old peers at the pink bundle in his mother’s arms. Elena squirms, and Elle shifts the baby to keep her calm. Beside her, her husband laughs.

He chuckles. “Of course, silly,” he says, and ruffles their son’s blond hair. He’s taken after his father with his looks. “That’s my sister!” he asserts.

And this is my family, she thinks.

***

Her brown eyes study him when he sleeps and observe the gentle rise and fall of his chest. His warm breath just barely reaches her face. He’s not smiling— but he’s not frowning, either. She decides that he looks calm.

Elle smiles slightly at the sight of glasses still on his face. They help me see in the dark, he had insisted, accompanied with a wry grin tugged across his lips. She had laughed and told him there was nothing to see in the dark, turning off the light before climbing into bed.

The rhythm of his heartbeat lulls her back into a sleepy mood; she’s neither awake nor truly asleep. The sun from the window has not yet reached the bed, and she knows that when it does, it’ll cast its light on his hair: a golden halo.

She counts the freckles that scatter from his jaw to his shoulders, almost blending with his tan summer skin. There were twenty-four. Was it normal to want to kiss every one? Would it wake him up; would he squirm? She presses her lips to one on his shoulder to test it out, but he doesn’t react. So she inches her way up to his jaw, watching for a reaction. She leaves a promise behind with every kiss.

“Hi,” he whispers, sleepily, stirring at her touch.

“Morning,” she replies. And Kyle smiles, as radiant as the sun behind the curtain, and Elle smiles back.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.