Physician Writers Share Their Zeal for Storytelling

By Brunk, Doug | Clinical Psychiatry News, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Physician Writers Share Their Zeal for Storytelling


Brunk, Doug, Clinical Psychiatry News


Dr. Robert H. Bartlett was so mad I that he had to find a way to channel his anger--he chose written words.

It was the late 1970s and Dr. Bartlett was on the surgery faculty at the University of California, Irvine. He also directed the university's burn center. A lawyer asked him to review the case of a local man charged with child abuse for allegedly burning a child.

"When I reviewed the case, I was sure the man was innocent based on how things looked, but the man had already been convicted, as he was in prison," said Dr. Bartlett, who is now professor emeritus of surgery in the division of trauma burn / critical care at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "This was a retrial on appeal. I testified, saying it was clear to me that this was an accident. But the jurors didn't believe me, and they sent him back to prison."

Furious, Dr. Bartlett wrote a few editorials for local newspapers noting that no physician with an expertise in burns had ever evaluated the victim. No one had ever taken a medical history. The charges against the man were "all based on assumptions that were incorrect," he said. "So in the editorials I wrote [that] before you accuse somebody of child abuse, you better make sure there's a basis for it medically. Because once someone's accused, it's one of those crimes that runs wild, and it's very hard to prove innocence."

He continued to write, but in a fictional form, based on this case and other burn injury cases that he had seen that showed signs of child abuse. The effort culminated in his first novel, "The Salem Syndrome: A Novel of Medicine and Law" (Livonia, Mich.: First Page Publications, 2005). The manuscript collected dust for more than 25 years before being published in 2005.

"I had an agent in New York and [had] come close to getting it published at that time, but it never was," he said. However, "about a year ago I met another small publisher ... who read the book [and] thought it was good. So we published."

Dr. Bartlett, who listed John Updike and George Garrett among his favorite authors, said that most of the book was written on airplanes or in hotel rooms during his travels for work. "I really didn't have time to [write] when I was in town and running my practice," he said, adding that the majority of the story was dictated. "I have great secretaries. All of my grants and scientific papers are dictated, so I got into the habit of dictating full paragraphs or full pages at a time."

He said that the hardest part was writing the first sentence each time he sat down to devote time to the book. A metaphor he came across likens writing to driving from Detroit to Chicago at night. "You know where you're going, you know pretty much what the route is, but you can only see as far as your headlights shine," he said. "I found that helpful. Trying to write carefully to get the big picture isn't really the way it goes. You just need to get a small step for the story at a time."

Dr. Bartlett's second novel, "Piece of Mind," is due out later this year. He called it a novel of medicine and philosophy. "The story is about a neurosurgeon who wants to know where the anatomical localization of the soul is," he said. It follows four patients who are admitted to his service on the same weekend and who have various neurologic problems, "all of which affect their behavior and thinking and provide some insight into where the soul might exist--if indeed it does."

He is also working on a traveler's guide to medical history in Europe.

A 'Thinking Man's James Bond'

If medicine and law inspired Dr. Bartlett, medicine and politics inspired neurologist David B. Rosenfield, author of three books about protagonist Dick Swept, a neurologist whom he calls the "thinking man's James Bond."

In his first book, "Dick Swept, M.D.: Tomorrow the World" (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2003), Dr. Swept is recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to block ex-KGB agents from producing a drug intended to alter the minds of world leaders and media types. …

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Physician Writers Share Their Zeal for Storytelling
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