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Why a literary magazine at the nation's oldest public hospital matters more than ever

A laboratory in New York City's Bellevue Medical Center on May 17, 1949.
A laboratory in New York City's Bellevue Medical Center on May 17, 1949.

Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital has hosted many luminaries of the arts and letters over the years ... as patients in its famous psychiatric ward, and in its morgue. Norman Mailer, Edie Sedgewick, Eugene O'Neil, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie — all spent time at Bellevue, says Dr. Danielle Ofri, who co-founded the Bellevue Literary Review 20 years ago this fall.

Ofri believed it was important to start a literary magazine at the country's oldest public hospital because storytelling, she says, is an undervalued aspect to her profession. While working with medical students, she noticed their patient write-ups all sounded alike.

"This is a 57-year-old white female with a past medical history of coronary disease, blah blah blah — and I really had to tell them to drop the jargon, and ask the patient, 'What was it like when your doctor told you you had congestive heart failure?' " she explains.

Ofri encouraged her students to see taking patients' histories and physicals as an opportunity to connect, rather than as 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 not until the student began talking to her about it did she realize they were two different illnesses."

Health care workers' writing during the pandemic warrants special attention

The culture at Bellevue 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 remembered in a recent interview with NPR. "And then, we recruited Ronna Wineberg as fiction editor and two poets for poetry editor, but the submissions were from all walks of life! Medical folks were only a small percentage."

Ofri has also written more than half a dozen books intended for general audiences; her latest, When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error, just came out in paperback.

Last year, she treated patients in Bellevue's COVID-19 tents.

The Bellevue Literary Review saw a spike in submissions during the pandemic, Ofri says. Editors in 2020 received more than 4,000 poems, essays and stories. The ones from health care workers especially need to be tended to, Ofri notes. We need to listen to our health care workers, she says, in order to help them heal.

Entire issues of the BLR have been dedicated to themes such as COVID, family, and medicine and racism. The next one will focus on recovery.

Literature can examine how bodily health and societal health are connected

Ofri says that literature and medicine share certain critical qualities: Observation. Precision. Empathy.

"You can go to the doctor and have your illness cured. That's different from being healed," she says. "And plenty of patients, I think, leave our offices, leave our hospitals, and their illness is cured. But we don't feel healed."

Since Ofri helped start it, the Bellevue Literary Review has fostered the careers of writers who have become legitimately famous, including Leslie Jamison (The Recovering) and Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere).

The magazine published Ng's short story "Girls at Play," which won a 2012 Pushcart Prize, soon after the author graduated from the University of Michigan's MFA program. "I liked the idea that a hospital that was so well known for helping people understand themselves better, come to terms with who they were, was also putting out a literary journal," Ng tells NPR.

The fractures — the ill health, if you will — of our society can be examined almost clinically by literature, she says.

"Our health and our mental health and our societal health are all really connected to each other," Ng observes, adding that a literary journal that comes out of a hospital thinks about these things together. "It is a way that we're thinking about what we're thinking, what our health is, bodily speaking and then also how we connect with each other, how we function as a society, how we relate to each other as human beings." Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York's Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the country, also publishes short stories and poems and nonfiction. The magazine is called the Bellevue Literary Review, and it celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall. NPR's Neda Ulaby says the magazine was founded by doctors who see storytelling as an overlooked part of their jobs.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In the past, says Dr. Danielle Ofri, Bellevue Hospital has hosted famous luminaries of arts and letters as psychiatric patients - Norman Mailer, Edie Sedgwick, Eugene O'Neill.

DANIELLE OFRI: All did time at Bellevue. William S. Burroughs - he cut off one of his fingers and made the trip to Bellevue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM S BURROUGHS: Circuits in his brain flickering out like lightning and...

OFRI: Who else? Charlie Parker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OFRI: Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie.

ULABY: Ofri started working at Bellevue during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and spent much of last year treating patients in its COVID tents. She tries to combine her skills as a medical professor and an attending physician with editing the literary magazine, which she founded with colleagues frustrated by a system more about checking boxes than sharing histories and humanity. The magazine, she says, was intended to try to correct the sense that in modern medicine...

OFRI: Doctors and nurses don't listen, that patients try so hard to get their story told.

ULABY: But the submissions come not just from doctors, nurses and patients; anyone who writes about healing and bodies in crisis can get published here. The magazine's been an important entry for writers like Celeste Ng. She wrote the celebrated novel "Little Fires Everywhere" that was made into a series on Hulu. One of her very first publications was in the Bellevue Literary Review.

CELESTE NG: I liked the idea that a hospital that was so well known for helping people understand themselves better, come to terms with who they were, what issues they were struggling with, was also putting out a literary journal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALEEM HUE PENNY: My uncle's hand-me-down compression socks. Life expectancy falls. Nevertheless...

ULABY: That's this year's winner of the magazine's poetry contest. Saleem Hue Perry (ph) contributed in a year that saw issues dedicated to themes like medicine in racism and COVID. The next issue is about recovery. Dr. Danielle Ofri says when we eventually look back on this awful pandemic, the writing people will remember will not be the CDC guidelines; it will be the novels.

OFRI: The poems, the nonfiction renderings of this that bring the human side that will be the complement to the data that we so clearly need.

ULABY: Patients do not use the language of data, Ofri says; they use poetry and metaphor. It feels like this; it hurts like that. Doctors need to respect such poetics.

OFRI: You can go to the doctor and have your illness cured. That's different from being healed. And plenty of patients, I think, leave our offices, leave our hospitals, and their illness is cured, but they don't feel healed.

ULABY: Submissions to the Bellevue Literary Review went up during the pandemic, with more stories from health care workers than ever before. Ofri says attending to those stories helps heal those who've been helping the rest of us during this dark and painful period.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWN PROJECT AND DUKE ELLINGTON'S "SINGLE PETAL OF A ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.