In “Wake-Up Call,” pediatric surgeon and attorney Catherine A. Musemeche recounts the emergency of her mother’s ruptured aneurysm from dual perspectives, as a medical professional who is also a concerned daughter. Musemeche has numerous scientific publications;“Wake-Up Call” is her first published creative nonfiction. Interview conducted by Chad Vogler.
How did you come to write creative nonfiction, and how do you find it to be intertwined with or distinct from your academic writing?
Creative nonfiction and academic writing are, for me, two entirely different forms. I started writing creative nonfiction later in my career, as I came to appreciate the more human aspects of medical care. As a surgeon, I am trained to lock out all emotion, to focus on the task at hand. I took a break from medicine to attend law school, and when I returned, I saw the human side of medical care much more clearly.
Oddly enough, part of training in and practicing law is learning to understand human behavior and learning to empathize with clients. Law school teaches you to look at both sides. You learn to argue for and against the same issue, depending on what side you’re on. The best lawyers, especially in front of a jury, are the best communicators. Going to law school made me a better surgeon because I was a more well-rounded person.
Can you say how your processes of composition and revision differ in your academic and creative nonfiction works?
Revision is everything in creative nonfiction. I have learned to embrace that stage of the writing process. When you’re in revision, you have at least written something you care enough about to work on and improve. You can’t shy away from revision. You have to respect it, embrace it, and see where it takes you.
The action in your story often is conveyed through your relationship with your sister, or through your memories of former patients. Why did you write the story in this way?
My mother was flown to, and operated on in, the hospital where I trained in general surgery, so of course that hospital reminded me of the patients I had taken care of there—mostly adults. I’m a pediatric surgeon. I take care of children exclusively, so when my mother was post-op, hooked up the ventilator and all those tubes, it reminded me of those very sick adult patients I wrote about. My sister, on the other hand, was very much a part of the story from the beginning; she worked as a nurse in the ICU where my mother was treated. That was extremely hard on her.
I notice that you often juxtapose arresting details with tedious-sounding procedures; for example, there is the scene where you “scooped out blood with quart-sized stainless steel buckets.” How do you decide which images to include, or omit, in your writing?
My goal when writing about operations or medical care in general is to bring the reader to the bedside, operating room or intensive care unit with me, to have a sensation of what it’s like to see through my eyes and stand in my shoes as a surgeon. I am not a trained writer and never took a single English course in college. What I bring to the table is my ability to transport the reader into my world.
Your descriptive passages are sometimes graphic, but they never seem to make a spectacle of the patient.
I guess it’s the difference between observing as a trained, compassionate physician and gawking like a tourist or someone watching Animal Planet. I have a lot of reverence for the people and situations I work with every day. I hope that comes through.
As you’re a surgeon yourself, I found it interesting that you didn’t attempt to reconstruct the scene of your mother’s surgery. Why not?
I wasn’t in her surgery. I have written very vividly in numerous essays about surgical scenes, but I was at those surgeries or performing them myself. I did write about what has to go right in that kind of operation, and that was as close as I could get.
Did you require some degree of emotional distance from these events in order to write about them?
I started writing about this on the plane ride back to work. I know this will sound strange, but I commute a lot, and when I was at 30,000 feet, I felt closer to my mother. I wrote about it in a lot of different ways, never intending to write “Wake-Up Call,” but that is what eventually came out of all my high altitude scribbles.
Do you mean you felt closer to her on that specific flight back from the hospital?
Yes, I was referring to my return flight, and every flight after for some time. I was commuting between Austin and Seattle, so I was flying a lot. I’m not a deeply religious person, but I knew my mother had left the earth, and if there was a heaven, she was definitely there. She was the kind of person who took care of all the neighbors and strays. She gave and gave and gave to her friends and family. So I knew she was up there somewhere.
Near the conclusion of your story, you write that you’re “armed with too much medical knowledge. It gets in the way of my ability to hope.” Do you feel that writing can help restore hope, or does it help you acknowledge that hope is not always an option?
Physicians by necessity lose a certain innocence as they learn the practice of medicine. They see things no one else can see. They have a knowledge and understanding of what certain medical facts and diagnoses mean for their patients, their family members, and themselves. There’s the movie where the little boy says, “I see dead people.” Well, guess what: Doctors do, too. When we’re walking down the street, we see things that other people don’t see. We see people dying of cancer, people about to have a heart attack, a person with a horrible, devastating disease. They may be in pain. They may be close to the end.
We see these things because we have grown up in a system of medical education that starts in our early 20’s and continues for another decade or more and on into practice. Just like a baseball player who grows up in a farm system and goes on to the big leagues can see a lot happening on the diamond that escapes the rest of us. Same with medicine. We spend the greater part of our lives within the confines of a hospital—a place that houses the sick and dying. That’s where we live, so we can’t help but recognize it.
Do you think there’s such a thing as an ideal death?
I thought my uncle had a perfect death—died at home in his bed, undiscovered for several days. So, he avoided all the angst and hoopla to a certain extent. Not everyone in my family agreed with my perspective. See my recent blog post on this topic, if you care to.
Chad Vogler is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program in poetry.