Doctor-author offers his literary diagnosis

Giller prizewinner Vincent Lam talks writing, not medicine, at workshop 'The link between doctors and writers is narrative,' physician tells John Goddard

John Goddard, Toronto Star
November 9, 2006

T he medical profession's newest literary star, Dr. Vincent Lam, will talk to doctors who aspire to be writers in a workshop next month.

There is no equivalent workshop for writers wanting to be doctors on the side. Precedents exist for doctors becoming successful literary figures, not the other way around.

Toronto emergency physician and author Dr. Vincent Lam, at his Queen St. lofts residence, is the author of a collection of short stories that won the Giller Prize, the country’s richest literary award. Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov was a physician. So was American poet William Carlos Williams and Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini, author of the bestselling The Kite Runner.

Lam works in the emergency department at Toronto East General Hospital. On Monday, he won the country's richest literary award, the $40,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, for his first book, a short-story collection called Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures.

He is also to be keynote speaker Dec. 9 at a daylong workshop presented by the Humber School for Writers, with an expected audience of 65 physicians.

"The link between doctors and writers is narrative," Lam said at home yesterday, taking time to savour his prize before getting back to the workaday gore of the emergency ward.

"What happens is, someone tells me the start of a story, and much of what I'm supposed to do is tell them the ending. The other thing I'm supposed to do is make the ending of the story better."

By coincidence, B.C. writer and doctor Kevin Patterson was also in Toronto yesterday, publicizing his latest work, Consumption, a novel about an Inuit woman in the 1960s who is flown south for tuberculosis treatment.

"Doctors have, for many years ... presented medicine as a discipline that is 95 per cent science and 5 per cent art, but I don't think that's accurate," Patterson said of a day job that, in his case, takes him on frequent visits to Arctic settlements.

"As an internist, I get people to tell me a story," he said, echoing Lam. "They tell me a story about their unintended weight loss, or night sweats, or visual blurring, and then I interpret that story ...

"If you read a great, well-written consultation note, a `history and physical,' it has all the features of a short story, including foreshadowing and characterization."

Clear thinking counts in both professions, said Dr. Paul Hannam, head of Toronto East General's emergency department and Lam's boss.

"His writing style is a clear type of writing," Hannam said of his long-time friend and colleague. "Certainly the way (Lam) speaks and the way he thinks and also the way he writes, it's a very concise type of style, which is definitely how we're trained to think."

Hannam knows of no other aspiring writers among the 20 or so doctors in his department.

Everybody on staff was excited about the Giller win, he said. But even before the honour, Lam's portrayal of certain hospital situations resonated with his fellow physicians.

"In the emergency department," Hannam said, "the human experience is laid bare all the time, in all its glory, or not, and everybody responds differently to different circumstances."

In the interlocking stories of the prize-winning book, the four main characters represent various sides of himself, Lam said in a calm, dispassionate way that suggests a gentle bedside manner.

"We all have these shadowy parts that fall into the category of what could have been, or what might have been, or on a bad day what we get awfully close to," he said.

All the characters are doctors: Ming, obsessive about science, is compelled to achieve her goals regardless of personal cost. Fitz risks becoming lost in his striving to see the big picture. Sri unfailingly sees his patients as people, rendering him vulnerable but richly human. And Chen, the negotiator and diplomat, stands perhaps too apart from a situation.

"The events are completely fictional," Lam said, though one story is likely to stand out for Toronto readers.

It may be the only literary work to date to take a reader inside the 2003 SARS crisis, when 375 people in Toronto were infected with the respiratory virus, and 44 died.

Lam was at the front lines. He never got sick, but in his story Contact Tracing, he draws on experience to create medical workers facing their own death.

"(The SARS crisis) was earth-shaking for all of us who worked and lived through it," Lam said. "We were confronted with a kind of vulnerability that we had not previously experienced.

"It was a terrifying time that forced us to ask questions, while we were delivering health care, about why we were doing what we were doing."

Lam has a novel in the works set in his grandfather's Vietnam, and he co-wrote a book released last month on the potential flu pandemic. But medicine, he said, continues to be an integral part of his life and "immensely satisfying."

Photo credit: Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star

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