Alessandra Colaianni, MD, is a graduate of Duke University, where she received degrees in biology and philosophy. She attended medical school at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and concurrently completed an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She’s currently a surgical resident at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston. Although she maintains a busy schedule, one of the passions she keeps up with is her non-fiction writing. Her most recent piece about surgical residency, “Terra Nova,” was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (N Engl J Med. 2018; 379:1797-1799).
ENTtoday: When did you first start writing?
AC: I would write little chapter books when I was a kid, in first or second grade. I took a couple of creative writing classes here and there, and in college I wrote a lot. I can be a very slow thinker, so sometimes it takes me writing about something to figure out how I feel about it. Growing up, writing was how I engaged with the world.
ENTtoday: With your love of literature, what prompted you to go into medicine and otolaryngology?
AC: I wasn’t pre-med in college, although I’d been tangentially interested in healthcare—I knew a lot of pre-med students and worked in D.C. for a couple of years at a healthcare consulting firm. I’d also taken a few courses in medical ethics, which I really liked, and my research was on genetic testing and the ethics of the Genome Project. After working on two projects at that consulting firm, though, I knew I wanted to be involved directly in patient care. I didn’t want to be writing about physicians in the aggregate; I wanted to be treating people.
I didn’t know what otolaryngology was until I was well into medical school. But I happened to do a week during my general surgery rotation (which, as I was never going to be a surgeon, I did first to get it out of the way) on otolaryngology, and met three of the most amazing female residents who totally took me under their wings. I’m actually amazed at how much they taught me within a week—especially now as I try to train my own medical students. At the end of the week they told me I should really think about doing otolaryngology as a specialty. I really like the technicality of otolaryngology surgery in a way that I didn’t anticipate. So much of our lives are lived above the clavicles and I’ve found that my humanistic bent is actually helpful in this specialty.
Writing helps me make more sense of residency. I think it helps me be a little more deliberate about why I’m doing what I’m doing, and helps me understand the patient’s point of view.
ENTtoday: Do you find that your writing helps with your residency?
AC: Writing helps me make more sense of residency. I think it helps me be a little more deliberate about why I’m doing what I’m doing, and helps me understand the patient’s point of view.
There’s a whole field called narrative medicine, where a physician will write a piece about a patient interaction and actually use that in their therapeutic relationship with that patient—essentially saying, “Here’s how I was thinking during the interaction we had.” I have done that once, not specifically for a therapeutic relationship but because the interaction, about an awake tracheotomy, was particularly intense. I was thinking about publishing the article and wanted to have the patient and his family read it to make sure they were okay with everything I had written. And that was a surprisingly vulnerable experience as a physician.
I took a break from writing other than journaling during my internship and 2nd year because I was just too busy, but by the middle of my third year I had started writing about my intern year. If you have something you love to do outside of medicine, don’t force it. Be kind to yourself and take care of your immediate needs; the thing that you love to do will always be there.
Amy E. Hamaker is a freelance medical writer based in California.