Doctor juggles medicine, writing novels

Giller Prize winner works full time in ER, meticulously schedules time for next book

Charlie Fidelman, Montreal Gazette
January 20, 2007

It's the rare emergency room patient who consults Toronto doctor Vincent Lam for writing tips.

But a few physicians with literary aspirations often do.

Winner of the prestigious 2006 Giller Prize for his debut book, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, Lam spoke to The Gazette yesterday on a range of topics, from the fictional Bloodletting to Canada's flu pandemic preparedness.

"But I actually really try to separate my clinical practice from my life as a writer," said Lam, 32.

Montreal is the last leg of a "mid-country" promotional tour from Alberta to Quebec. That means he's not practised writing or medicine for nearly 10 days - "which is really sad," he joked.

Lam said he initially enrolled in medical school to find "material" with which to build characters and situations. He put writing aside temporarily and stayed the course for the love of medicine - and for the gratifying experience of helping someone heal.

"I realized something after winning this prize" worth $40,000, Lam said. "Medicine and writing are both very important to me. I don't want to stop doing medicine. I love going to the hospital and seeing patients."

Lam, who's working on his first novel, gives writing equal priority, meticulously scheduling "writing days" between ER shifts and child-care duties, which he shares with his wife.

But writing is so much harder, demanding hours of introspective work, Lam noted, "slogging and beating my fists against the page until suddenly something works." He can't imagine why anyone would write "except because they felt compelled or that something would be incomplete if they didn't do it. That's certainly true for me."

After a tough day of writing, "it's a great relief to go to the hospital," said Lam, who maintains a full-time schedule as an emergency room doctor at Toronto East General Hospital.

Toronto's ERs are just as packed as Montreal's, he noted.

"The emergency department is like the canary in the coal mine. ER overcrowding is simply a symptom of the entire (health) system being overtaxed," he said.

It's false to suggest ERs are overcrowded because people go there with problems that don't require emergency care, he added. For one thing, non-emergency cases and people with minor ailments are sent home.

"They don't clog the emergency department," Lam said.

"It's very dangerous to discourage people from seeking emergency care. People don't know what their problems are," he said. "That's my job."

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures weaves short stories about the medical profession, inspired by Lam's personal experiences.

Only one story in the collection is factual: A Long Migration, based on a summer he spent with his terminally ill grandfather.

"I am very flattered that people think it is highly autobiographical, because I can only assume there's a sense of reality in the writing," he said. "But my own life deviates quite a bit from the lives that are lived in my fiction."

Bloodletting appeared at the peak of public interest in stories about doctors and nurses, as popular television series like ER and Grey's Anatomy suggest.

An earlier non-fiction book, the Flu Pandemic and You, co-written with public health physician Colin Lee, followed the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003.

Canada is relatively prepared should the H5N1 strain of avian flu hit, having signed a contract with a vaccine supplier, he said.

But pandemic planning, "like writing or medicine, is an ongoing process" that makes better doctors and better writers, Lam said.

© Montreal Gazette 2007