Long before he was a doctor, Dr. Joel Levine was a writer. He crafted poetry and short stories as a college student in the late 1960s, and his talent drew encouragement from teachers and readers alike. Levine largely set writing aside while he pursued a career in medicine. He earned his medical degree and went on to residencies and fellowships at Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Yet the desire to write remained with him.
Today Levine is professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and a founding director of the UConn Health Center’s Colon Cancer Prevention Program. The many awards framed on the walls outside his office testify to the respect he has won among patients and peers.
But he’s also an accomplished writer. For several years, he wrote a column for the Litchfield County Times. An essay he wrote on mental health and gun safety was picked up by the National Institute of Mental Health. His op-ed pieces have appeared in the Hartford Courant, and a series of essays he wrote on fathers and sons was well-received. More recently, his essays and works of fiction have been published in several online journals, including Eclectica Magazine and American Thinker.
Levine’s roles as physician and writer are closely intertwined in his most recent fictional works. “The profession of medicine is changing,” Levine says, “and cost is what everyone is now paying attention to. The humanity of medicine, the difficulty of being a patient and the truth of disease are at risk of being lost in the discussion of what the ‘new’ medicine should be like.” In this environment, he says, “there is a place for a physician to see from a different perspective.” With that in mind, he has begun to write a series of pieces looking at the experience of disease from the perspectives of both doctor and patient.
Levine has spent his career intimately acquainted with disease, which he refers to in conversation as “a beast.” Physicians bear witness to the way disease appears without warning. “You’re going along with life and then, all of a sudden, something happens, and it’s a profound change nobody is ready for,” he says. The powerful impact illness has on the lives of patients, their loved ones, and physicians themselves, is something Levine thinks about every day. His sensitivity to these experiences is reflected in a recent fictional vignette he wrote titled “Love Is Not Time’s Fool.” The story focuses on a middle-aged couple who learn that the woman has terminal cancer. It follows them, as a couple and as individuals, as they travel through a strange new world—a world they were never prepared to visit. Details that Levine weaves into the piece make the experience vivid for the reader: the way the woman’s gradually changing reflection in the mirror marks the passage of time; the fear the couple feels on entering the “fluorescent world” of the emergency room; the dread of nighttime, when “disease is bolder … and humbles everyone.” Their experience of the love they have felt for each other touchingly becomes “the tender poetry of loss.” In the story, the doctor is a tacit witness to the drama.
Many people who have read the story have written to Levine. Most describe it as “heartbreaking.” And he means it to be. “I know too well that diseases can be unforgiving and difficult. I want to show the difficulty.” Part of his purpose in writing is to express his concern that contemporary society’s emphasis on the economics of “health care” is clouding the fundamental nature of the practice of medicine and even changing physicians’ understanding of what they do. “My purpose is to humanize the experience again,” he says. “Illness is heartbreaking. I choose not to sanitize the process.”
Complexity of interactions
One of the things Levine tries to do through his writing is continue to call attention to the complexity of interactions among physicians, illness and patients. This is reflected in one of Levine’s published essays, titled simply, “Why I Write.” In it, he says: “In the past, doctors shared a palpable bond with patients, an intimacy that transcended the facts of medicine and also focused on the surety of telling another, in reality still a stranger, secrets and concerns that were welcomed and resulted in comfort and good counsel.” Seeing health care in terms of an economic commodity, he writes, is shortsighted. And our personal view may change when we make the transition, as we all do, from being healthy to being ill and must confront the dwindling of our time. “I write to remind both doctors and patients of the nobility that can reside in doing justice to this most natural of life’s challenges. It has a beauty of its own and … I try to reflect that.”
Dr. Levine’s piece, “Love Is Not Time’s Fool,” can be read at http://www.eclectica.org/v17n3/levine.html.