Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital has hosted many luminaries of the arts and letters over the years…as patients in its famous psychiatric ward and morgue. Norman Mailer, Edie Sedgewick, Eugene O’Neil, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie – all spent time in Bellevue, says Dr. Danielle Ofri, who co-founded the Bellevue Literary Review 20 years ago this fall.
Ofri thought it was important to start a literary magazine in the country’s oldest public hospital because storytelling, she says, is an undervalued aspect of her profession. While working with medical students, she noticed that their patients’ reports were all alike.
‘She’s a 57-year-old white woman with a medical history of coronary heart disease, blah blah blah – and I really had to tell them to drop the lingo and ask the patient,’How was ite when your doctor told you that you had congestive heart failure?’ ” she explains.
Ofri encouraged his students to view taking patient histories and medical exams as an opportunity to connect, rather than boring paperwork.
“And it was amazing the things that we learned,” she says. “For example, there was a patient who had both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis but didn’t really know they were two different things. And it wasn’t until the student started to tell her about it that she realized they were two different illnesses.”
The writings of healthcare workers during the pandemic deserve special attention
Bellevue’s culture lends itself to experimentation, Ofri says; She started there as a young doctor during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
“My co-editor, Jerome Lowenstein was a nephrologist; he was the non-fiction editor,” she recalled in a recent interview with NPR. “And then we recruited Ronna Wineberg as a fiction editor and two poets as a poetry editor, but the submissions came from all walks of life! Doctors were only a small percentage.”
Ofri has also written over half a dozen books for the general public; his last, When we hurt: a doctor faces a medical error, just came out in pocket.
Last year, she treated patients in Bellevue’s COVID-19 tents.
The Bellevue Literary Review has seen a spike in submissions during the pandemic, Ofri says. Publishers in 2020 received over 4,000 poems, essays and stories. Those of healthcare workers in particular need to be cared for, notes Ofri. We need to listen to our healthcare workers, she says, in order to help them heal.
Entire issues of the BLR have been devoted to themes such as COVID, family, medicine and racism. The next one will focus on recovery.
The literature can examine how bodily health and societal health are linked
Ofri says that literature and medicine share some essential qualities: Observation. Precision. Empathy.
“You can go to the doctor and have your disease cured. It’s different from being cured,” she says. “And a lot of patients, I think, leave our offices, leave our hospitals, and their disease is cured. But we don’t feel cured.”
Since Ofri helped found it, the Bellevue Literary Review has nurtured the careers of writers who have become legitimately famous, including Leslie Jamison (Recovery) and Celeste Ng (Small fires everywhere).
The magazine published Ng’s short story “Girls at Play,” which won a 2012 Pushcart Award, shortly after the author graduated from the University of Michigan’s MFA program. “I liked the idea that a hospital so well known for helping people understand themselves better, come to terms with who they were, was also publishing a literary journal,” Ng told NPR.
The fractures – the ill health, if you will – of our society can be examined almost clinically by literature, she says.
“Our health, our mental health, and our societal health are all really connected to each other,” Ng observes, adding that a literary journal emerging from a hospital thinks about these things together. “It’s a way of thinking about what we think, about our health, about our bodies and also about how we connect to each other, how we function as a society, how we relate as Human being. .”
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