Nina Gaby

Essays, art, and healthcare


Action plan. Writing about health care.

photo-66For today can I just write a blog about writing a blog? Of course I can. I’m the boss of me. Except that I started writing another piece today, one I realize could be considered controversial and should only see the light of day under deep pseudonym in the AARP magazine backpages–so I feel less the mistress of my own freedom than any thinly veiled braggadocio might suggest. That piece, the one you will likely not read, is about the atrocities of getting old in the changing workplaces of an ageist society where you are unappreciated as a still fierce force to be reckoned with. Instead the piece reads more like a Human Resource reportable incident than a blog post and do we really want to go there? If you do, message me discreetly.

So anyway, in the spirit of positivity, let’s talk about a new project instead. This March I attended the annual conference “Writing, Publishing, and Social Media for Healthcare Professionals” at Harvard. I admit it was daunting to spend time with two hundred medical experts and hearing their pitches for what could easily become the next medical blockbuster. We met with agents, editors and publicists and attended three days of lectures on such topics as “How to Get Your Message Out in Today’s Changing Media Environment,” “Narrative Writing in Healing: The Power of Stories,” and “Publishing is Changing the Way Medicine is Practiced.” Participants left the conference all charged up with action plans and brand new twitter accounts. I left geared up to do…something. During the workshops I made a pretend pitch to write a patient-centered handbook, titled something like So How Was Your Week?, which would explain, in a conversational Anne Lamott-y tone, what to expect from your psychiatric encounter. I practiced and pitched it and got good marks for my delivery to a panel of a dozen agents and editors and the aforementioned two hundred others. No agents swarmed me for a book deal, nor did I really want one. My handbook just didn’t have the punch of, say, revolutionary non-pharmacological ways to beat the common headache forever or how one surgeon brings the dead back to life or the slam dunk memoir potential of impoverished illegal immigrant cures blindness (maybe I embellished a bit here) What I really want to do anyway is find ways of talking about how we feel about doing health care, how do our stories matter in the schema of Obama-care and litigation and insurance insanity? I’ll never be an Oliver Sacks or Atul Gawande, I’m just a worker on the front lines. But what if stories like mine and those of my colleagues could shine a light on the complexities of today’s health care and create better communication with patients, families, colleagues, legislators? What if we could promote health care by making our process more transparent? What if we found words to support each other during this process? Working on the front lines can be a lonely and misunderstood endeavor. Our stories have great potential to heal and I want to talk about ways to do this.

So in the positive spirit of staying close to home and writing what you know, starting in May I’ll be working with the marketing and communication team at my local hospital to do some interviews and write some blogs and connect with my colleagues and patients to do the same. Stay tuned. In the meantime here are several collections with beautiful narrative, moving examples of the genre.

Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue edited by Amy Ferris, Seal Press 2015.

Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger, She Writes Press 2015.

Same Time next Week: True Stories of Working Through Mental Illness, edited by Lee Gutkind, InFact Books, 2015.







How Lucky to Have a Friend that Reads

imageA main difference between me and my friend and colleague Char who died is this: the day she came in to clean out her office it took her two minutes and only a couple copy paper boxes. She dumped a pile of books on me, nursing education books from 1983 that she’d been carting around, and old DSM-maybe the Third Edition? And some outdated clinical diagnostic tools. “I don’t want those, don’t give them to me, you know I’ll keep them forever, they are heavy and I don’t want them!” She did anyway.

She also didn’t cry. She was leaving her office for the last time. The week before she had received “findings” after a trip to the doctor. “Findings” in our parlance as medical professionals means there is something really there, not just the “curbside” diagnoses we all give each other in the hallway. Mine, for Char, was “old lady gallbladder.” My prognosis, “they’ll suck it out of you and I’ll come over while you’re recuperating and we’ll read together and then you’ll come back to work and we’ll fight and gossip like always.”

Shortly after 5AM the morning after her doctor’s appointment she messaged me, knowing I’m always up, she knows my craziness well. “Call me,” it said. “NOW?” I messaged back. “In 10 minutes,” she said.

A very long 10 minutes later I called, she had “findings” that were more serious than just a rotten sac of sludge and the next thing we knew her office, next to mine, was empty.

As we had ended our conversation at 5:30 AM she said, “I don’t care. As long as I can read I don’t care.” Of course she said a lot of other things but the one thing I could do was get her plenty of books. I also promised to shepherd two handwoven vestments that were of vital importance but they found their eventual homes.

(My friend reads. How lucky I am, I think, to have a friend who reads. Reads stuff I like. Reads stuff I write. Only she is gone long before my own book will come out.)

I soon go about the business looking through my books. Can I give her David Rackoff’s essays? He died from cancer last year. He writes about his therapist dying of cancer. My friend is a therapist. Can I give her Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? David Shield’s collection The Inevitable? Victoria Zackheim’s Exit Laughing? Mary Roach’s Stiff? What about all the David Foster Wallace stuff? Didion? The Road? The Hours? another friend’s memoir of her husband’s ALS? My holocaust collection?

What’s wrong with me? No wonder I’m depressed. Look at my reading material. I find a Hello Kitty tote and decide on Rackoff, Egan, some other blackish stuff just too good to pass up and my friend is just too smart to suddenly not read good stuff. She would be offended if I suddenly showed up with a filter, treating her in good taste. Rainbows and unicorns. A journal for your journey. Savor every second.

The next day she shows me to her “visitors” chair in her bedroom. We are still not used to this. I am a little dressed up. I dump out the books, apologetically. “They are a little dark, of course. But brilliant.” “Of course,” she says. “Can I be irreverent?” “I guess so.” It would be a mistake to think that impending death is going to change my friend’s intellect or her humor. “So it’s OK that I won’t be bringing you journals with unicorns and rainbows.?” “I would hit you upside the head.” “Good.”

The last time we were out together, noodles and a movie in Hanover, NH on a perfect late fall day, she had a plastic sack of books she needed help moving from her car to mine. “Don’t give me any crappy books,” I warn. “I think they are just more of the ones you lent me.” The Rackoff is in there. The Egan. “I loved those,” she said. Then there’s a bunch of crap she slipped in that I don’t want and I keep my mouth shut. I put it in a pile on the stone fence of the parking lot after she slowly drives away.