After almost thirty years as a doctor, I have started writing fiction. I have recently completed a collection of short stories called Admissions which includes tales of eight different women working in the same crumbling public hospital in the far south of Aotearoa. Sounds familiar? For those of us who have worked at the coal-face of clinical medicine, my stories may not surprise or shock, but I hope they are tales of our common humanity and shared experiences. Perhaps this is the main reason I write: I want to tell stories which unite us.
In writing Admissions I tried to show how women working as doctors, nurses, cooks and cleaners keep a hospital operating, battling the challenges and dysfunctionalities which are part of daily life. And my stories are more than descriptions of women at work: they are confessions of mothers, daughters, friends and lovers. I wanted to explore the ever-present and ever-changing balance between our professional and private lives: how much we share and how much we hide. We plan and predict, but we stumble and fall. Our careful – or haphazard! – strategies are disrupted by falling in love, by our connections to others, by the birth of our children, by living our ordinary lives, by our deepest – or most impulsive! – feelings, by love and loss and grief, and of course ultimately by death.
These are big issues – I could argue they are the biggest – and the medium of fiction gave the opportunity to explore them. Perhaps my highest, most lofty ambition was to make some sense of the things I had experienced as a junior doctor, as an obstetrician, as an associate professor, as a cleaner in a mental health unit (yes, I have done all of these jobs) and as a mother, daughter, friend and lover (yes, I am all of these things too). But I soon realised that this is an impossible task – we can’t make sense of much at all, we can only share our stories.
We are also witnesses. Back in the days when I was a hospital doctor, I had a daily window on people’s lives – mainly women’s lives – but I was too busy fire-fighting (and too tired and stressed) to think about how interesting this is. Of course I realised – I still realise – that it’s an enormous privilege to be with someone as they give birth, or as they die, but it was only after I left clinical medicine that I thought about how I could write about these times. There is an objective and subjective view from our side which is often hard to blend into something readable. For years I was too close to it all, I needed the space to think about what it means to witness life and death and everything in between. To be part of it and yet apart from it.
I also needed some space from being a mother: it was only last year, after my two kids left home for university, that I found I was in the right headspace to write fiction. Knowing they were now on their own paths freed me to find mine and this brings me to the ultimately selfish reason why I write. I love it. Sitting at my laptop in an upstairs room at home overlooking the Otago harbour, I feel contented, inspired and fulfilled writing my stories. (Well, most days anyway…) And I enjoy writing fiction because I can make it up! Having spent the best part of my life preaching about evidence-based medicine and supporting every sentence I wrote with the relevant citation (I have written/edited two medical text books) I am now free to invent and create – and it is joyous!
The stories I have written for Admissions are largely based on the reality of working in crumbling public hospitals – or at least my experiences of that reality – on both sides of the world. I have found release and relief in writing fiction and it has been wonderful to get to the point of sharing my stories. It took a long time and some courage to put my tales out there and reactions to them have been interesting. Some family members refused to read them (!); some colleagues provided detailed critique and said I had got things wrong and one GP friend said he thought “The Professor’s Tale” was far too sexy! But overall, the reception was positive, including from published writers of fiction. Some even said they loved my stories.
Probably the best response, which meant a lot to me as a former gynaecologist, was from a friend who asked if she could share “The Obstetrician’s Tale” with her daughter who had lost her baby. She said that reading it had helped her understand miscarriage a bit better and I think that by sharing my story with her daughter, she could show that she cared about what had happened to her. Sometimes fiction can do this for us: it can offer us another way of communicating and help us heal. And these too are vital reasons why doctors should write.
Dr Mira Harrison-Woolrych BM DM DFFP FRCOG is a doctor-turned-writer, an English-Kiwi, who has crossed the world many times between Britain and New Zealand. Mira graduated from Southampton University Medical School in 1989 and went on to clinical obstetrics and gynaecology and then to research in women’s health, to gain her doctorate in 1995. She has since worked in medicines regulation, pharmacovigilance and pharmacoepidemiology in both the UK and NZ. Mira is currently Secretary General of the International Society of Pharmacovigilance (ISoP), a professional body with over 500 members from more than 60 countries around the world. In 2001 Mira moved to Dunedin, New Zealand. Between 2003 and 2013 she was Director of the NZ Intensive Medicines Monitoring Programme at Otago University, becoming Research Associate Professor in 2013. In 2015, she edited the textbook Medicines for Women [Springer International], the first book to specifically focus on medicines and devices used in women’s health. She also wrote and co-edited the second edition of An Introduction to Pharmacovigilance [Wiley Blackwell] which was published in 2017.
Browse the medical humanities category on Corpus to read other articles by or about health practitioners who write. Try, for example:
- Swapping the scalpel for the pen: a surgeon writes by Kevin Pringle
- “I give you my guessing tubes” 4 poems by Dr Rae Varcoe
- Poetry and medicine by Dr Emma Storr
- Heart risk 1; Sore puku 0 by Dr Kyle Eggleton
- Working between science and the soul by Dr Leah Kaminsky
- From nurse to novelist interview with Penelope Todd
- 4 doctor writers: Oliver Sacks, Paul Kalanithi, Gavin Francis and David Galler by Sue Wootton
- Anton Chekhov: a compassionate diagnostician by Sue Wootton