While medical professionals are on the front lines fighting the pandemic, we’re taking a moment to honor them and explore a little deeper into the world of providers, caretakers, and patients with a reading list from one of our Literature & Medicine facilitators. Literature & Medicine is a nationally recognized humanities-based professional development program for health care workers that engages clinical staff members in reading and discussion programs facilitated by humanities scholars. Over the past year, we have been expanding this program, with several new facilitators and new sites throughout California. While many sites have paused in-person programming during the COVID-19 outbreak, we’re sharing some thought-provoking readings selected for us by Karen English of San Jose State University, the facilitator of our Palo Alto VA Medical Center site. She’s curated a list of recommended books, poems, and essays that are relevant to our current circumstances, and can uplift and inspire us by encouraging empathy, healing, and connection.
Water by the Spoonful (2013) by Quiara Alegria Hude won the Pulitzer Prize; it is the second play of a trilogy that centers on experiences of members of a Puerto Rican American family over generations. I think this play is an engaging depiction of the value of virtual and face-to-face community in negotiating the comedies and tragedies of American life.
Lying Awake (2001) by Mark Salzman is a novel about a woman who sought solace from abandonment in a Carmelite cloister and now faces a decision about her health that could impact her religious community. With humor and lyricism, Sister John’s story wrestles with the difficulty of deciding whether one’s own well-being should outweigh that of your family or community.
“Snowbound” (1991) by Veneta Mason [originally published in Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (1995)] is a poem about a visiting nurse whose patients relying on her to make it to their homes in an extreme weather situation “where only ‘essential’ employees reported to work.” Honestly, Ms. Mason is a poet whose work is always resonant with heartfelt stories of nurses’ service to their patients.
“Getting Comfortable” is an essay about being cared for at home written by Laura Hershey [published in Beauty is a Verb (2012)]. Like other works in the anthology, Hershey’s essay provoked me to think about the ways our own embodiment limits our ability to read.
This Is Going to Hurt (2018) by Adam Kay is a memoir about a doctor in the National Health Service. While his book is advertised as medical humor, Kay’s diary of a medical public servant shows why all countries need to invest adequate resources in accessible systems of health care. I read this book twice and listened to it once: funny and heart-breaking.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1937) by Katherine Anne Porter may be the best piece of fiction every written by an American. Set during October 1918 when people dropped dead in public from the influenza, the love story is also about the dangers of authoritarianism in a democracy.
—Karen English, San Jose State University