Dr Leah Kaminsky
A physician works at the border between science and the soul … the wise doctor probes not only the organs of his patient but also his feelings and emotions, his fears and hopes, his regrets and his goals. And to accomplish that most important task of applying wisdom, the physician also needs to take his own emotional temperature.” – Jerome Groopman, in the foreword to Writer, M. D., a collection of works by doctor-writers edited by Melbourne GP and writer Leah Kaminsky.
Kaminsky writes: Writing for me can be a kind of thermometer, where I check the rising mercury of my own beliefs, biases and uncertainties. It is not a place I hope to find answers—rather, I use the blank page to try and understand what kind of questions a doctor needs to ask. My medicine has always fed and informed my writing. But more importantly, literature has, I hope, made me a better physician.
Seeing the narrative behind a patient’s symptoms or disease is crucial to a holistic and humanistic approach. Physician writers go as far back as Apollo, the Greek god of poetry and medicine. Copernicus, Maimonides, Chekhov, Bulgakov, William Carlos Williams, Conan Doyle and Keats followed suit. Story is archetypal. Intrinsically bound to us, it helps engender empathy and understanding between people. Every patient has a story to tell, if only you take the time to listen.
In my 2015 novel, The Waiting Room, I explore the terrain of individuals who live against the backdrop of war and terror, and how they reconcile this with going about their everyday lives. My main character is a heavily-pregnant doctor, who carries the inherited trauma of her parents’ horrific Second World War experiences. We follow her through a day on which everything she holds safe and secure will suddenly change. Along the way, we share her struggle with the constant juggling of her needs against her patients’ requests and demands. The trope of waiting is threaded through the book as a leitmotif for our human struggle against the inexorable spectre of death.
The novel and my poetry collection Stitching Things Together dovetail with my recent non-fiction book We’re All Going to Die, which explores my own chronic fear of death and Western society’s culture of death denial. Over the past century, we have gradually sanitised death, dying off stage, sequestered away in aged care facilities and hospitals, our lifeless bodies quickly whisked away to morgues and sterile funerals.
The medical profession leads the way in viewing death as a failure, and something not to be spoken about too much. The realisation that a doctor who harbours a fear of death is a bit like pizza chef with a phobia of dough galvanised me to turn around and stare into the blank face of the Grim Reaper. The book is a blend of courageous patients I have encountered, interviews with those who work on the coalface of death—from gravediggers to sword swallowers—interwoven with memoir and personal reflection. I like to think of it as a ‘joyful book about death’.
Writing is the way I make sense of the world, and my creativity is fuelled not only by reading voraciously, but also by the daily encounters with patients who give me the gift of their stories. I feel so privileged—every patient is a walking poem.
Dr Leah Kaminsky: Leah Kaminsky is a Melbourne GP, and Poetry & Fiction Editor of the Medical Journal of Australia. Her poetry collection, Stitching Things Together, was published in 2010. She conceived and edited Writer MD: The Best Contemporary Fiction and Nonfiction by Doctors, a collection of prominent physician-writers. Her debut novel The Waiting Room was published in 2015 to critical acclaim. Her ‘joyful book about death’, We’re all Going to Die, has recently been published by Harper Collins Australia. Kaminsky’s poem, “In Memoriam”, was commended in the 2016 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.