The list of doctors who write is a long one.
Legendary Russian short story writer Anton Chekhov. William Carlos Williams, the bard of New Jersey. Famed child psychologist Robert Coles.
This is to say nothing of current luminaries like Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande.
At their best, these authors use the accumulated knowledge of science and healing to give some insight both into their craft, and even the human condition.
At the Hunt Fellowship on Saturday we heard from Jan Gurley, a Harvard Medical School-trained doctor who says she “is the only Harvard Medical School graduate to have been awarded a Shoney’s Ten-Step Pin for documented excellence in waitressing.”
Dr. Gurley lives in the Bay Area, works with homeless people and writes about “an insane medical system” on her blog.
A willowy redhead who told me she recently became the shortest person in her family at 5’11”, she also taught herself to make videos about some of the people who we too often choose not to see-the homeless and downtrodden.
Her movie blended the contributions of the people she worked with and to whom she gave cell phones with cameras and the instruction to take pictures of items that scared them and gave them joy.
Her work also includes her own images and the voices of the people she has gotten to know, and, in some cases, treated.
In one particularly poignant piece, she tells the story of Carlos, an man who, when we meet him, has but three months to live because of liver cancer caused in part because of his excessive drinking.
Through the project, Carlos reconnected with his sister, and, we learn, spent more time with him in his final days than she had the rest of his life combined.
We do not see the sister on the screen, but we do hear her voice as she talks about the great gift of having ushered her first husband and Carlos through the end of their life and into death.
She talks with pride about the joy he took in his life, explains how she changed his diapers when necessary, and asserts both that his death was a triumph because it did not happen on the street, but when he was with his family.
“If I could die the way my brother did, I would be a happy woman,” she says. “It’s about showing humanity.”
“You wouldn’t let a dog die in a ditch,” she says in the piece’s final words. “Why would you let a person?”
This haunting question sits posed and unanswered by the sister, and, by extension, by Gurley.
Although her work ostensibly was about building community around one’s work, it also spoke in a very profound way to questions of dignity and to the role of a healer in witnessing and facilitating connection in life’s final moments.
Gurley’s session was the last one we had, and the sister’s question and Gurley’s compassionate work will stay with me as we go forward. Not a novelist like Michael Crichton or Robin Cook, she nevertheless is carving her space among the ever-expanding list of writing (and videoing) doctors.