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Into the Well: Why Writing Plays a Role in Medicine

Colin Wendt, MD, is a second-year psychiatry resident at the UW School of Medicine. His medical narrative “Into the Well” was published as part of the Journal of the American Medical Association’s series “A Piece of My Mind,” which is dedicated to telling stories about the triumphs, challenges and truths of practicing modern medicine.

“Into the Well” describes the strategies Wendt develops to process the emotional toll of psychiatric patient care. In this Q&A, he recalls experiences from his past that help him understand the emotions of his patients and their families.

Have you always been a creative writer?

I’ve had a passion for writing stemming back to my teenage years. Writing helped me stay centered through college, medical school and residency.

I still find writing challenging; however, developing my voice as a writer has made the writing process easier over time.

What role does narrative-style writing have in medicine?

Narrative writing plays an integral role in both medicine and medical journals. The practice of medicine is rooted in storytelling and, in many ways, the goal of patient encounters is to synthesize the many stories our patients share and to help them continue their personal narratives toward a path of healing.

Beyond hospitals and clinics, narratives play important roles in the fabric of medical research: case reports, retrospective studies and large randomized clinical trials are all based on hypotheses aimed at better understanding the narrative of the human existence.

In this sense, I believe narrative medicine plays an integral role in better understanding the underlying stories that this profession is steeped in.

How do you think other providers will relate to your writing?

Providers from many different specialties have written to me since my piece was published. Many of these physicians spoke about similar patient encounters that brought back memories from their past, while others shared their passion for narrative medicine and reached out in support.

How did you come up with the idea for the well?

At the end of the day, before leaving the hospital, I would review my patient list and eventually put all documents with patient health information in the bin to be shredded. From this routine action I created the initial idea of the well, which would help me synthesize important clinical information and store it away for later.

What advice would you give to other practitioners on creating boundaries, like the well, for their own practice?

Having professional boundaries is critical; however, knowing where to draw that line as a young physician is immensely difficult. My essay explores how these boundaries change with time and personal exploration.

Do you think that total objectivity is possible in medicine?

Residency is really difficult, and young physicians encounter new and challenging experiences on a daily basis. At times, residents can feel like the only way to survive in such an environment is to practice being devoid of emotion.

While this may be necessary during emergencies, I think maintaining a stance of complete objectivity can be detrimental to both the patient’s and provider’s well-being.

Knowing how your past experiences shape your interpersonal interactions, and understanding the emotional significance of these experiences, helps you better understand and care for your patients in a more comprehensive and genuine way.

“Into the Well” is your second published medical narrative — do you have plans to continue writing?

I do have plans to continue writing during residency and beyond. Writing allows me to create my own personal narrative as I navigate the challenging and rewarding field of psychiatry.

 

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