In 2008, editor and physician Paul Gross launched a new online publication, "Pulse--voices from the heart of medicine" (published by the Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center). This anthology contains every poem and first-person narrative published during Pulse's first year, arranged in five sections corresponding to publication date and not to theme: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring.  Paul Gross, in his introduction, states "After more than a decade of practice as a family doctor, I came to appreciate that the science I'd learned in medical school, though powerful and useful, was also incomplete . . . . it contained much truth about illness and healing, but not the whole truth" (xvii).  Like many other caregivers, Gross discovered "that writing and sharing my healthcare stories with others was therapeutic" (xviii).  He looked to "Sun Magazine" as an example of how first person narratives, both prose and poems, could turn "hurts and triumphs into something potentially beautiful, funny or moving" (xviii). 

The poems and prose that arrive every Friday online to Pulse's thousands of subscribers (and the selections in this anthology) are carefully screened by the editors according to these guidelines: the stories have to be first-person, and they have to be true, recounting the writer's own experience.  Submissions are accepted from any person involved in healthcare.  The language used must be "clear, simple language.  No medical jargon. No arcane literary devices" (xx).  Gross and his editors decided that Pulse would not be a medical journal nor a literary magazine--its purpose fell outside the perimeters of both genres--and so Pulse, and this anthology, offers work that is, in a refreshing and honest way, different from the slick or more polished poetry and prose that might be found elsewhere.

In reading this anthology from cover to cover, and so from season to season, I found that the poems and prose seemed to fall into several categories: Personal musings, in which authors relate healthcare experiences that engender intimate and revealing narratives about their own lives--among the best of these are "Well Baby Check," p.3; "Finding Innisfree," p. 31; "First Patient," p. 39; "Losing Tyrek," p. 45; "Carmen's Story," p. 62; and "Chemo? No Thanks," p. 106.  Other pieces are commentaries on the other side of healthcare, the one that cries out for reform and affects both patients and caregivers.  Among the best of these are "Redesigning the Practice of Medicine," p. 9; "A Brush with the Beast," p. 22; "Rx," p. 60; "Halloween Horrors," p. 69; and "Brain Cutting," p. 136.

Other pieces are humorous ("Aunt Helen Sees a Ghost," p. 6) or political ("My War Story," p. 11), and many poems and prose pieces speak of patient encounters or about being a patient, some more anecdotal, relating a specific incident that affected the author ("Once," p. 41) and others multi-layered, some relating medical student or intern experiences ("Jeannie," p. 48; "A View from Nepal," p. 87; "Ripped from the Headlights," p. 90; "Snowscape," p. 97; "First Night Call," p. 100; and "Wounded Messenger," p. 114.)  The "category" I found most interesting and most unique are the selections I will call "confessions."  These writings--demonstrating openess and bravery on the part of the authors--tell of regrets, mistakes, sorrows, wrong calls and other mishaps that occur, daily, in the practice of healthcare.  In these, the most human face of caregiving is revealed.  Although most of the pieces in this anthology contain elements of "confession," the most specifically revealing include "Mothers and Meaning," p. 14; "Physician's Exasperation," p. 44; "Confidential," p. 53; "My Patient, My Friend," p. 73; and "Apologies," p. 104.

Editor's note: Coincidentally, a recent relevant paper on confessional writing by physicians expounds further on this topic:"Bless Me Reader for I Have Sinned: physicians and confessional writing" by Delese Wear and Therese Jones (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vo. 53, No.2, Spring 2010, pp. 215-30).



If you find that tears shed or misty eyes are of any value in judging a collection, then I will tell you that reading this anthology was at least a five-times-tearing-up experience.  This collection is indeed different from the usual literary offering--it permits sentiment and plain speech, and it allows the authors to be revealing in a particularly human way.  Although I am used to reading open and heart wrenching pieces by nurses, patients and family members, I have rarely read such honestly naked narratives by physicians.  Too often the essential emotion is revised or edited out of such pieces.  It seems that Paul Gross and the "Pulse" editors have created an atmosphere of safety for writers.  Perhaps it is the online, email nature of the publication, arriving every Friday in computer mailboxes, or the intimacy and familiarity of the one-piece-a-week venue, or the rules of publication that require "real" first-person truth and not just literary truth (in which the facts may be altered but the emotion must remain actual) that create this safety.  In any event, this safe environment is evident in this anthology; it offers a different view, a unique glimpse into the minds and hearts of caregivers.

I think this anthology would appeal to a wide range of readers, including patients and families.  Reading these pages, I thought that the group that might most profit from these poems and essays would be medical and nursing students, those who had not yet fully stepped into the world of hospital, office and illness.  These pieces might give them hope that they did not need to wall off their emotions in order to deliver good care; this anthology might teach them, in fact, that only by opening their hearts will they survive. 



cChange in Healthcare Publishing (1710 First Avenue, #123, New York, NY 10128)

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New York




Paul Gross & Diane Guernsey

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