Respected surgeon, author, and Loomis Chaffee Trustee Pauline Chen '82 shared her experiences as a student, doctor, and writer and offered a window into her own writing process for a group of Loomis students at a "Dinner and a Draft" event sponsored by Writing Initiatives on Thursday, January 3.
"When you have an image or thought that keeps coming back to you and affects you profoundly — write it down," Pauline advised the students. The presence of a muse is often momentary and fleeting, she said, so when an idea strikes, you must quickly "catch it and write it down."
Pauline told the students about being struck by inspiration while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in the early 2000s when she was living and working in California. Observing a tan line on her finger reminded Pauline of the tan lines on the hands of the first cadaver she dissected in medical school. Drawing a parallel between the two bodies, Pauline came to appreciate that the cadaver was more than just a corpse; it was once a woman, a person, with human traits and a personality — who clearly loved the sun — and that person had her own wordless story to tell. Recognizing the importance of this brief but meaningful revelation, Pauline rushed home to commit the narrative to writing. The story of her first cadaver unfolds in rich detail in Pauline's critically-acclaimed 2008 book Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality.
In her book and in her New York Times "Doctor and Patient" columns, Pauline's writing reflects her motivation to continually improve relationships between doctors and patients and to humanize the process of palliative care and death for families and medical practitioners alike.
Pauline's writing relies heavily on narrative — the familiar storytelling employed by her Taiwanese father in their multilingual home in Windsor, Conn. Pauline said she has always liked storytelling to convey thoughts and ideas because stories are entertaining and accessible to a broad audience.
Demonstrating the way narratives can draw people into subjects, even uncomfortable ones like death and dying, Pauline read excerpts of her writing for the group of students gathered on Thursday.
Pauline credits her time at Loomis Chaffee for helping her to develop as a thinker and to appreciate the power of writing. She fondly remembers serving as an editor for The Log, Loomis' student newspaper. After graduating in 1982, Pauline studied anthropology and Asian studies, while also completing pre-med requirements, at Harvard University. She earned a medical degree at Northwestern University and completed her general surgical training at Yale University. As a successful transplant surgeon in California, Pauline sought to reconnect with her love of storytelling, which she had set aside in pursuit of becoming a doctor.
"I didn't want to give up medicine, I just really wanted to write," she said. So with encouragement from a writing teacher at UCLA, where Pauline was also on the faculty, Pauline began to translate her medical experience into narratives that resonated with a wide audience.
She didn't give up medicine, but rather used her professional experience and her writing to inform and to draw public attention to important issues concerning doctors, patients, and medical care.
"I hope my writing can be a catalyst for change in some small way," Pauline said.
For the 20 students in attendance, many of whom write for student publications, Pauline encouraged writing as often as possible so the practice becomes second nature. She advocated for using an outline, stressed the importance of writing several drafts, encouraged putting all thoughts on paper first and editing afterwards, and suggested giving plenty of time to "let ideas stew." At the end of her talk, she answered students' questions about her writing and its relationship to her work in the medical field.
"All of you have stories to tell, and I look forward to reading them," she told the students in parting.Connect to the webpage for Writing Initiatives to learn more about writing programs at Loomis Chaffee.