It was the fall of my freshman year at McGill University. As a physiology major at a British-style university, my “electives” were microbiology, anatomy, and biochemistry. But a graduating senior offered me some parting advice: “If you’ve haven’t taken a class with Professor Ruth Wisse, then you’ve wasted your education at McGill.”
What, pray tell, did Professor Wisse teach? Yiddish literature.
The only Yiddish words I knew were “schmuck,” “chutzpah,” and “kasha varnishkas.” It was hard to imagine that there was actually literature behind all of this, but it wasn’t every day that I got an endorsement of that magnitude, so I took a chance and enrolled.
It didn’t take long for me to fall for the wit and poignancy of I.L. Peretz, Chaim Grade, and Sholem Asch. I lugged The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer to calculus and physics, reading during the breaks. I was still enthralled by the elegant logic of molecular biology, but there was a special thrill in dissecting a story with five students in the former laundry room of a converted brownstone, delving into how history and circumstance influenced creativity.
Professor Wisse inspired us to read deeply and argue passionately. My interest in this area flowered, and I took a class in Russian literature, then in Russian history, then in Eastern European political history.
Still, I followed the path to medicine and returned to New York, spending the next decade immersed in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. My medical training at Bellevue Hospital was saturated with death and devastation. Those years were depleting in ways that are hard to describe, even now. By the end, I couldn’t bear to watch another person my own age decompose before my very eyes.
I escaped for the next 18 months. I supported myself with short stints as a temp doc, and then traveled in Central America. There, away from the pounding cycle of illness and death, I found myself scribbling down my experiences of the past 10 years. The deliberately slow pace of writing, and especially of revision, was a counterweight to the frenetic pace of medical training. For the first time, I was able to consider the gravity of the intersections between my patients’ lives, my life, the panoply microorganisms, the random genetic mutations, the cauldron of social and economic forces, and the vagaries of the immune system. For a year and a half I kneaded those experiences on paper.
I eventually returned to academic medicine at Bellevue, publishing these essays in three books about life in medicine. I helped establish the Bellevue Literary Review, a literary journal about health and healing.
This summer, my fourth book, What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, was published by Beacon. I was seeing patients on a busy Monday morning when a letter arrived from a poet we’d published in the BLR. She’d been reading PW, saw the review of my new book, and tore out the page and mailed it to me.
My editor had e-mailed me the link to the online review as soon as it came out, but I hadn’t seen the printed version. Imagine my surprise as I opened the letter and there, right underneath the review of my book, was a review of a new book by Professor Ruth Wisse—No Joke: Making Jewish Humor. It was a coincidence worthy of O. Henry—though Sholem Aleichem would have taken it in stride with no more than a sidelong wink. But it was a supreme honor for me to sit side by side with the professor who had opened the door to the serious study of literature for me. I tracked down Professor Wisse—now at Harvard—to thank her for her formative contributions to my life.
When I think about the ongoing debate about the value of humanities in higher education, I’m reminded that it’s not (just) about the dwindling number of English majors. It’s about the totality of students who enter the university gates and then branch out into society.
For one standard-issue premed, an offhand comment and a chance exposure to an unknown sliver of literature sprung open an entirely new world. The unexpected opportunity to steep in the humanities offered me ways to think and write about medicine that I doubt would have been accessible to me otherwise.
To all the unsung professors, adjuncts, and TAs who teach humanities—bless you! It may seem like a thankless task, but your seeds of thought spread far and wide. You never know where they might germinate.