Physician finds link between writing and medicine rewarding

by Marianne Gasaway

Mark Twain famously said, “Write what you know.”  For Dan Waters, that advice helps to spin some interesting stories.

Waters, a vascular surgeon with Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa who has made Clear Lake his home since 1983, calls upon his childhood spent in Surf City, on the Jersey Shore, as the setting for his debut novel.

“I love stories and it’s truly relaxing for me to sit down and write,” said Waters.  “I wrote a bit in high school and was editor of the newspaper.  In college, my English teacher wanted me to pursue writing and we have kept in touch through the years.”

Ironically, his decision to pursue a career in medicine, rather than literature, has provided fodder for his hobby.  His writing is not autobiographical, with the exception of a piece he wrote about his part in the resuscitation of a snowmobiler on Clear Lake who rode into open water in 1993, and later a personal essay about his own heart attack.  But subject matter from his long career often influences storylines.

He has been published intermittently since the 1980s.

“I trained for seven years after medical schools to be a heart surgeon, which can be dry and boring.  But I published stories and essays that used experiences as the basis for stories, trying to share emotion, drama and poignancy of every day medicine.”

His essays have included the story of a medical student who witnesses his first death in the operating room, as well as babies in a neonatal intensive care unit.  “Holding the Heart” and “Baby Blues” are among three essays chosen for publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).    “Baby Blues” was also produced for Lifetime as a cable segment back in 1982.

“It struck me how powerful writing can be when I shared the Baby Blues story.  I learned stories are very powerful and if you do it right, they can resonate with people.”

Waters calls his discovery of narrative medicine significant, both in terms of his writing and in his interaction with patients.  The basis of narrative medicine is that every patient has a story that goes beyond the symptoms they bring into a doctor’s office.

According to Rita Charon, MD, Ph.D, considered the leader in the field, narrative medicine teaches physicians to be more comfortable asking such questions as: How do you feel about your illness?  What are your religious beliefs?  How has the pain changed your life?   In essence, using storytelling as a way to focus health care on the actual patient.

Waters said he became interested in bringing narrative medicine training into his practice, but couldn’t commit to the one-year program offered at Columbia University.

“I asked to do a two-week program and

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