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GPs with double lives: Authors part 2


Filip Vukasin


11/01/2023 4:14:53 PM

Dr Jacinta Halloran and Dr Leah Kaminsky discuss how writing not only provides a fulfilling alternate career but can be a form of self-care.

Dr Jacinta Halloran and Dr Leah Kaminsky
Drs Jacinta Halloran and Leah Kaminsky have both combined writing with careers in general practice.

With over a dozen books between them and decades of experience as GPs, Drs Jacinta Halloran and Leah Kaminsky are a wealth of knowledge. Both spoke to newsGP about preferring literature to medicine early in their lives but how incorporating both has led to a life rich with creativity and goodwill.
 
Returning to writing as therapy
Dr Jacinta Halloran says although she always wanted to be a writer, she only started writing when she had very young children.
 
‘I always loved the idea of writing and thought about being a writer at school, but there was no clear path to that, so I ended up doing medicine,’ she said.
 
‘With young children, I had the crossroads moment and thought, “am I going back to general practice or shall I take this crossroads somewhere else?”. That’s when I decided I wanted to write.’
 
She enrolled in a creative writing course at RMIT.
 
‘I loved it, every minute of it, did a diploma and then a masters and eventually got my first novel, Dissection, published.’
 
‘The idea of creativity was great because the way medicine was taught and in hospitals, it didn’t give you sense there was room for creativity.’
 
When asked what got her into writing, Dr Leah Kaminsky laughs.
 
‘I never got out of creative writing,’ she said.
 
‘It started with my first story in grade three. I had always written and my strength was writing. I got into medical school with my English and French marks.
 
‘I was so determined to get into medical school but when I got in, it didn’t come easily.’
 
Having been a fierce reader prior to medical school, she says she did not read or write much during the six years because she needed tunnel vision in order to study the material.
 
‘Then when I got out, when I was working in Sydney on night duty, I was doing a spinal tap on a child and afterwards I fell apart,’ she said.
 
‘I took some time off and enrolled in a writing class, went to New York and did writing there.
 
‘I did a masters and got back to what I love, which is reading and writing. It helped me process the years as a medical student and doctor because in those days, there wasn’t much to help process it all.
 
‘It was therapeutic and helped me come back to what I was passionate about and what I really needed.’
 
Dr Halloran has similarly found writing to be a form of self-care.
 
‘Certainly, the first novel was cathartic. It was a form of processing of some of the anxieties of being a GP,’ she said.
 
‘Around the time I wrote it, there was a pervasive fear of litigation that perhaps doesn’t exist so much today. Writing about it was helpful, [because] as the character worked through her traumas I did too.
 
‘I hadn’t been sued, [it was] just the anxiety about it and the way you practice medicine as a result.’
 
General practice as narrative
Dr Kaminsky says prior to becoming a GP, she had planned to do paediatrics.
 
‘But for a bunch of reasons I didn’t and so general practice fit in well for me. I was scuba diving and working in Aboriginal health, so general practice gave me that flexibility to have an excuse to travel and gain experiences,’ she said.
 
‘I did lots of locums and was writing a lot at the time. I did medical journalism, and I was writing for The Age.
 
‘That got me into writing in a more creative way and brought a lot of gigs.’
 
She did a Bachelor of Arts straight after medical school and went on to write several non-fiction books while practicing poetry and short stories, which were her original passions. All the while, she worked as a GP.
 
Does medicine feed her writing?
 
‘It’s more important that my writing and my reading feeds my medicine,’ she said.
 
‘Reading subtext and engaging empathy – which I believe a lot of fiction does – noticing nuances, being attuned to language, what’s being said and knowing what questions to ask.
 
‘When you’re reading, you’re asking yourself about the character and I take a similar approach with my patients, trying to gauge what they’re not saying.’
 
Dr Halloran describes how general practice has more potential than other specialties for creativity.
 
‘You can work individually – you can individualise with patients and explore patient stories and their lives as characters,’ she said.
 
‘For a writer who is interested in story and character, there is more potential as a GP.’
 
She has also predominantly worked as a part-time GP and part-time writer.
 
‘It’s a good way to do it because writing full-time is difficult, so the part-time [for] each is a good way to use different parts of your brain,’ she said.
 
‘Writing is solitary, it can be self-absorbing while general practice gets you out of that and into other peoples’ lives and engaged in a helpful way.’

double-lives-article.jpg
Pursuing fiction writing can be both isolating and 'incredibly rewarding'.

And while writing has helped with her work as a GP, Dr Halloran says medicine likewise helped with structure and time management.
 
‘Most students go into it with high motivation and dedication and don’t stop until they’re done. The culture of medicine fosters that,’ she said.
 
‘Doctors are good at time management and have good skills for it.’
 
There are many doctors who write, a phenomenon that Dr Kaminsky ponders.
 
‘There’s something about doctors and writers. Something about working in medicine and the privilege of seeing humans at their rawest,’ she said.
 
‘It’s about narrative too.’
 
Dr Kaminsky says that doctors edit perceptions of pain.
 
‘We put it on a 1–10 scale, whereas some patients say it’s more like infinity,’ she said.
 
‘When you look at literature and the expressions of pain there, you can understand the spectrum of what patients are feeling better than just a questionnaire.’
 
She sees working as a GP in a similar vein to writing a novel.
 
‘You have a diagnostic dilemma and I look at it like a puzzle. You get the edges and work your way inwards,’ Dr Kaminsky said.
 
‘I feel more confidence in my role as a GP because there is structure, compared to the throes of a manuscript.’
 
Working on her fourth novel, which is due out in March, Dr Halloran has incorporated her emerging career as a family therapist. She says part of moving away from general practice was because it was difficult being a generalist.
 
‘I’ve gone and done a masters in family therapy and the novel that’s coming out, Resistance, is about family therapy,’ she said.
 
‘I worked at headspace for six years as a GP but became more interested in the provision of mental health care and providing the counselling.
 
‘To see people in short spaces of time, 15 minutes, is so demanding.’
 
Medical books
Dr Halloran describes two books she recently reviewed.
 
‘One was The Doctor Who Wasn’t There, a history of medical technology by Geoffrey Green,’ she said.
 
‘It’s an interesting book about the things we take for granted and how they came to be, the history, the marketing, the fears about technology and how the cycle is repeated with new innovation.
 
‘The other is A Fortunate Woman, an empathic and warm homage to The Fortunate Man, also about a GP. It reflects on how pressured general practice is these days in the UK, with similar problems to Australia.’
 
Dr Kaminsky’s most recent book deals with the weaponisation of health by Nazis.
 
‘I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I know the stories of the victims,’ she said.
 
‘But in The Hollow Bones I wanted to look at the perpetrators and what makes a top scientist turn bad.
 
‘And there isn’t one [thing]. It’s a slippery slope.
 
‘Sadly, our profession has been at the forefront of atrocities and that book was me trying to explore who I would be in the moral situation.
 
‘I met and spoke to a psychiatrist who wrote a book called The Nazi Doctors, and he interviewed a lot of them. These guys were “normal”, but murdering children then going home and having strudel with their wives and listening to music.
 
‘He talks about doubling. As a doctor, I wanted to explore how your professional life and morality conflicts with science.’
 
Dr Kaminsky continues to work as a GP after selling her general practice of 30 years and is working on her next novel.
 
She quotes her mentor, the prolific author of Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally.
 
‘We were talking about deadlines and he said, “my biggest deadline is the cosmic deadline”.
How many more books have I got in me? Who knows. I will keep writing, I just love it,’ she said.
 
Dr Halloran similarly beams as she describes her alternate career.
 
‘It can be incredibly rewarding, creating a book out of nothing. You don’t even have a canvass or paints, you just have your brain and you create this thing that has its own life,’ she said.
 
‘I still find that incredible.
 
‘You have to carve the time out, it can be difficult with kids and other things in life [but] if you want to do it, don’t see the barriers. See the enjoyment and the satisfaction.’
 
This article is part of a series about GPs with parallel careers. Anyone interested in telling their story is encouraged to contact filip.vukasin@racgp.org.au.
 
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Dr Nick Carr   15/01/2023 11:54:12 AM

Two wonderful doctors and excellent writers - if you haven't read their fiction, rush out and start now. A toss up between "Science of Appearances" (JH) and "Hollow Bones" (LK) for my favourite. Inspirational women.