Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, is a physician at Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in country. She writes about medicine and the doctor-patient connection for the New York Times, and other publications. Her lectures to medical and general audiences are renowned for her use of dramatic stories (and avoidance of PowerPoint). Danielle is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. the first literary journal to arise from a medical setting.
Interview by Elsie Ohem
TCJWW: What writing influences from your past have you used when writing, drafting, and revising your book?
Ofri: I did my medical training during the late 80s and early 90s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was an exhausting way, in a manner that is difficult to describe. We were so saturated with death, that I ended up taking a year and a half off after residency. It was during that time that I began to write down the stories of my experiences in medical training. I wasn’t planning to write a book, or to be a writer, but the stories needed to come down on paper.
That was the first time I was able to think through these powerful experiences. In real life, everything happened so quickly, with not a moment to reflect. But writing was so much slower. I found myself especially drawn to the process of revision. In real life, there’s a chance to revise, but in writing, you can go back to the story endlessly. Not that you can revise or change the actual events, but you can switch the point of view, rethink how the stories are entered and exited, slow down or speed up time, widen the angle of the lens, or narrow the angle lens.
TCJWW: As a female author and professional, what have you felt has been the biggest challenge when writing about the male-dominated medical field? Alternately, in what ways is being a woman helpful when accessing this particular industry?
Ofri: To be honest, I haven’t really felt any major challenges that arise from gender. The struggles of a beginning writer far outweighed any gender related issues.
TCJWW: There were times that your prose switched back and forth between intended audiences—audiences that are both lay and professional. This was achieved by the wording of specific scenarios, specifically when there was the use of “we” and “us” when speaking about doctors, as well as the use of complex medical jargon at times. What type of audience did you have in mind for What Doctors Feel?
Ofri: I am intending for What Doctors Feel to be for both professional and lay audiences. I’ve tried to use medical jargon sparingly, or at least to explain it within the text. But I do want the book to be authentic, without talking down to anyone.
TCJWW: On your personal website, you use the tag line “Writer, Editor, Doctor,” and you place being a writer before your career as a doctor. What compelled you to acknowledge your skills in this order?
Ofri: I have to confess that I didn’t really think about it when I wrote it down. But someone pointed out to me recently, and I realized that I should probably reorder it to put doctor first, since that is how I really feel. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how I set the website up originally, so I can’t quite figure out how to change it! But thank you for the reminder—I should really get on it.
TCJWW: Why did you choose to focus on a personal narrative rather than traditionally writing a non-fiction research book based on your adept professionalism?
Ofri: Telling stories has always been more intriguing to me then relating facts. If I don’t have a story, it’s almost impossible to write an article or a chapter. To me, this reflects my interest in medicine: although I find the science fascinating, it is the patients and their stories that are the most compelling.