Jonathan Bennett, author of “Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio”
Author Jonathan Bennett discusses work in the medical field and how those experiences shaped his novel The Colonial Hotel, as well as his recent poem and interview in The Puritan’s summer issue. Catch him reading at Pivot on October 1st.
The Palliative Pressure
I was an emphatic “No, I will not write about hospitals or health care.” This was my line, a line I used with reasonable frequency during my years working in acute care communications. You see, as soon as someone who works in a hospital learns that you are a writer, they say one of three things:
a) Let me tell you my story. It’ll make a great novel.
b) I’m not telling you anything, ever, because you’ll just put me into one of your poems.
c) I don’t have time to read. (Then they give you a withering look, as if to say, “saved any lives lately?”).
So, I always shut it down. Didn’t even entertain the idea of using the material that was all around me. Then, I left the job. Moved on to another gig. That’s when, with time and space, I realized, of course I had been using it. For example, in my last book of poems, there are a few medical ones. And, the new novel I’d been working on, The Colonial Hotel, while set in an unnamed developing nation, had as its protagonists a physician and a nurse. Turns out I’d not done a very good job at all of holding my line. It’d crept in just about everywhere.
One evening, I met a medical resident who I’d seen at the hospital, out of context. We were up at a poetry reading at Trent University. We connected on social media. Before long he moved on, to train at other hospitals around Ontario. One day, he posted on Twitter that he’d just completed his palliative care rotation, but still had to complete his “Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio.”
I was curious. I emailed him. What, I asked, was this culminating task? Turns out that medical school is working harder on connecting a new doctors’ thoughts and feelings to their work. It’s not all surgical compartmentalization these days. There is an emotional or empathetic component to medicine, they are now taught. Big strides. So, at the end of this rotation (in an acute setting, palliative is usually end-of-life care, pain management, etc.), the residents were to “reflect” on the care they’d provided, what they’d learned, and were to even record their impressions of their patient’s life stories. That’s what he wrote to tell me, more or less. What I, the writer who emphatically did not write about health care, found myself thinking was: I must get my hands on a doctor’s secret diary!
Don’t forget to read Jonathan Bennett’s novel released this year from ECW Press
There are rules guarding personal health information. If I was going to somehow get him to share his writing with me, I’d need to have him strip out all identifying information. I knew he was a reader, a doctor into literature. Maybe he’d be tempted. So I asked. I might have flattered him a bit. Somehow he agreed. Did all the extra work to redact identifying details. And, there, before too long, on my screen, were the inner thoughts of a young doctor, grappling with ethical issues, death, stories, clinical jargon. Gold. All mine. I read it over and over. I’d have rolled in it if I could. Now, what was I to do with it?
- Don’t forget to check out Jonathan Bennett’s novel, The Colonial Hotel from ECW Press
The Palliative Care Poems
Over the next two years I worked and reworked these four diary entries to such an extreme degree that they now bear only a distant resemblance to the original. I invented new characters, learned their voices, recast what was true into something entirely invented. And yet, as far as it is from the original, from those very real people who had died, and from the voice of the young doctor doing his best to grapple with his feelings and what he saw before him, I couldn’t have simply invented it. Or, if I’d tried, it would have lacked certain details, missed out on the echoes of those real lives lived.
What appears in The Puritan is the first in a series of longer “Palliative” poems. It’s in the voice of an old, dying physician, about the man’s transition from doctor to patient, from subject matter expert to cancerous object. It’s wry in spots. This was there, in a way, in the original (in which the palliative patient was not a doctor at all). But I also kept fragments of the original story, bent now to fit my new character.
If writing is rewriting (this idea of overwriting and erasure, until the finished thing is its own structure and reason, and cannot be traced back to its first drafts or its initial hesitant beginnings), then why not start with someone else’s work as a first draft? That was my hope when a young doctor handed over his private work, thoughts, and feelings, and trusted me with them.
By the end, it felt wholly mine.