Doctors Who Write: Where Science and Humanities Unite

January 29, 2014

Physicians are no strangers to the pen and have made invaluable contributions to world literature. Here, the story of a 21st-century internist-author who is firmly rooted in both worlds.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. W. Somerset Maugham. Walker Percy. Robin Cook. Michael Crichton. Ethan Canin. Lydia Kang.

Lydia Kang?

Kang might not be as well-known-yet-as the others in this illustrious group, but the Omaha internist is the latest in a line of physician-novelists that stretches back centuries.

Kang’s first novel, a young adult sci-fi thriller entitled Control, debuted the day after Christmas 2013, and the sequel is due out in the fall of 2014. She’s also revising a third novel. In her day job, she works part-time as an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska School of Medicine.

Each of her professions informs and enriches the other. She majored in biology as an undergraduate at Columbia University, but she minored in English. “I’m a big fan of 19th-century English literature,” says Kang, who’s 42. “I did a little creative writing in college.”

She graduated from the New York School of Medicine and completed her residency at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, where, as a medical senior resident, she launched a palliative care consultation service. That work led to her first published piece of creative writing as a doctor.

“I’d been taking care of this one patient, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him,” Kang recalls. The patient was young, only 25, and dying of cancer.

She wrote an essay about the man, sent it off to the Annals of Internal Medicine and “kind of forgot about it. A month later I got an email saying it had been accepted.”

Not long afterward, she and her husband, an oncologist, moved to Omaha, and Kang began writing in earnest. “I had just given birth to my third child. I was really hormonal. I started writing a lot more poetry, a lot more creative nonfiction.”

She participated in workshops sponsored by theSeven Doctors Project, founded by poet Steve Langan. “I wanted to see what would happen when mid-career physicians who claimed burnout or job dissatisfaction participated in a writing workshop led by area writers,” Langan explains. “I had a hunch we could help. More than imagined, we have.”

Kang published more poetry, more creative nonfiction, in JAMA and the Canadian Medical Association Journal, among others. And through her blog, Kang has helped more than 100 writers from around the world get medical facts in their fiction just right.

Reviewers have praised Control for how Kang weaves science into the story. “It never felt like info-dumping, and everything is discussed in layman’s terms,” according to a review posted by SF Signal, an online science fiction fanzine.

Zelia, the novel’s main character, suffers fromcongenital central hypoventilation syndrome, commonly known as “Ondine’s curse.” “On its own, my body will only take a few, piddly shallow breaths a minute,” explains Zelia. “If I don’t consciously breathe more deeply or frequently when I’m excited, or running, or doing anything besides imitating a rock, my brain won’t reflexively take over enough to keep me alive.”

Kang’s writing success led Langan to ask her to become a Seven Doctors Project faculty member. “She’s a great colleague-clearly energized by the work,” he says. “She’s done a great job guiding and helping to mentor our participants.”

Her advice for physicians who think they’d like to try writing but feel intimidated by the blank page or computer monitor:  “It’s actually a very positive thing to try to unearth these creative impulses. Just because something comes easily, like science, doesn’t mean that things that are harder are things that you shouldn’t try.”

Despite her blossoming career as a writer, Kang says she has no plans to stop practicing medicine. “Right now I have a really good balance. I put so much time and energy and effort into practicing medicine, it would take a lot for me to turn that down and say I don’t want to take care of my patients anymore.

Of course, one can never say never. “If it became the next Hunger Games,” Kang says, “then I might consider quitting, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”