First-year medical student Steven Dondinger wants to be a doctor, but he knows that his future holds something more — writing and publishing poetry.
Amanda Swanson was a creative writing English major as an undergraduate, but medical school has made huge demands on her time, to the detriment of her writing. She hoped to learn how to balance being both a physician and a writer.
Pediatric oncologist James Harper's goal is telling the stories of his family members and other people who have gone out of their way to help him over the years.
They are three of the 11 “students” in the just completed a session of Seven Doctors Project, the brainchild of poet Steve Langan that came to fruition in 2008 when he began work toward a doctorate in medical humanities.
His project offered doctors and medical students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center a chance to try creative writing in a workshop environment, pairing them with practicing writers who would serve as mentors.
Mentors and students would read aloud their writing — stories, poems, essays, creative nonfiction — and get feedback at the group's weekly meetings.
“I wanted to see what would happen,” Langan said.
The initial group of students — seven midcareer physicians — gave the project its name.
News has gotten out about the project and it has expanded beyond UNMC.
The group that just finished was the seventh incarnation of 7DP. In addition to Dondinger, Swanson and Harper, the other med center participants were surgeon Karel Capek; Grace Davis, internal medicine; Amol Patil, pulmonologist; medical student Ben Johnson; and Andrew Jameton, an ethicist and philosopher.
Also participating were Nancy Camras, the wife of the late Dr. Carl Camras, former chairman of the UNMC Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences; Gilles Monif, an infectious disease physician and president of a medical research company; and Charlie Youngblood, a Creighton University Medical Center anesthesiologist.
The reasons the students sign up is varied. Some want to improve writing skills for their careers. Others want to get published. For a few, writing is a way to express themselves, or a means of reducing stress. Others look forward to the companionship of the group and the chance to talk about writing.
Their genre choices were just as diverse. Several wanted to write poetry. Others were interested in essay writing or creative nonfiction. A few think they have a novel in them that's waiting to be written.
Langan praised the mentors' willingness to get involved. It required a serious time commitment: The group met for a couple of hours every Thursday, and they were “on call” to their mentees.
This session's mentors included Langan, executive director of the HONOReform Foundation; surgeon Byers “Bud” Shaw, one of the original seven doctors, who has started other writing seminars at the med center; Lydia Kang, also one of the original doctor participants, who has a young adult novel coming out this year from Dial Books for Young Readers.
Also, Suzanne Kehm, a published writer and recipient of a 2012 Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Nebraska Arts Council; Lindsey Baker, a published poet and writer for a national travel magazine; and Todd Robinson, published poet and creative writing instructor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Langan said it's interesting to watch each 7DP group unfold.
“They're all hesitant at first,” he said, “but the mentors are not shy about encouraging the students — or about giving criticism.”
“I was nervous at first, because I knew most of the people in the group would have more writing experience than I have,” Davis said. “But the group is made up of fun, creative and generous people who all love to write.”
At one meeting of the group, about the third week they got together, everyone arrived chatting and cracking jokes. It seemed like friendships had developed quickly.
Langan brought the session to order.
Everyone presented nonfiction writings, and most of the students' work displayed a growing knowledge of how to use words to paint pictures. During the discussion period, some were more reticent than others, but most were talking by the time class ended.
All seemed serious about writing. They asked questions of the mentors and the students who presented what they had written. Some scribbled notes or typed into their tablets. Since many of the writers had incorporated humor into their essays, there was plenty of laughter.
However, there wasn't a lot of criticism at that early meeting. The students mostly stuck to talking about the things they liked in the pieces that were read.
The following week, after meeting with their mentors, the writers reassembled as a group. The students were more open and more likely to criticize in a discussion after hearing Baker read one of her new poems. Everyone was allowed to talk about her work — except her. That's a rule.
In the weeks that followed, all got their turns to silently listen as their works were discussed.
Swanson said she likes the workshop setup of the program. “I think it is the best way for individuals of a group to grow in their writing abilities.”
The mentors say they can learn from the students at the weekly sessions.
“Participation in the project helped me reinvigorate my writing, restoring confidence and allowing me to find a truer voice,” said Shaw, who heads UNMC's transplant program.
He always has written, especially creative nonfiction, and has even started a novel, which languishes in a desk drawer. Shaw said he is developing a study on whether reflective writing is more effective than other medical humanities activities in improving performance and job satisfaction among physicians and other professionals.
Fitting writing into busy lives can be difficult. “I would like to say I set aside a time per day to write, but there are a lot of demands on my time — on call a couple of times per week, classes at night, five kids,” Youngblood said. “I turn to writing whenever I can.”
Some of the writers have found success in balancing being a writer and being a doctor or medical student. Work produced or at least started in previous 7DP groups has been published or has been accepted for publication, Langan said. In addition to Kang, the list includes Lloyd Holm, Molly O'Dell, Phil Smith and Cheryl Thompson — all doctors.
“Writing does not conflict with work,” Kang said, adding that she is lucky, because she works part time.
“I tell people I work full time: half writing, half doctoring. I truly have the best of both worlds.
“I think the writing compliments being a doctor so well,” Kang said. “It's very flexible, time-wise. The writing itself, as fantastically imagined as it sometimes is, still reflects the human experience.”
Although her book, “Control,” will come out in December, Kang isn't ready to give up her career in internal medicine.
“Will I ever give up doctoring? Not at this point. I have a great balance right now. I love teaching and I love my patients,” she said.
“I am strongly aware that I spent much of my life training for and practicing medicine,” Kang said. “It would be a huge decision to step away from that — and not an easy one.”
Langan said 7DP will become part of the Nebraska Writers Collective, a nonprofit organization that promotes creative writing and performance poetry throughout the Midwest, on July 1. He thinks the partnership will benefit the group in many ways, including more involvement in community outreach.
One form of outreach is coming up next week.
“We always host a reading at the end of every session,” he said, adding that the reading on Monday will serve as a fundraiser for the Nebraska Writers Collective.
Langan and the other mentors are proud of the work they and their protégés have done.
“People in the health professions often have to set aside their creative voices,” Kehm said. “And it's a privilege to make space for them to get quiet, to say what they are feeling, to be heard.”
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