RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
New York's Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the country, also publishes short stories and poems and nonfiction. The magazine is called the Bellevue Literary Review, and it celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall. NPR's Neda Ulaby says the magazine was founded by doctors who see storytelling as an overlooked part of their jobs.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In the past, says Dr. Danielle Ofri, Bellevue Hospital has hosted famous luminaries of arts and letters as psychiatric patients - Norman Mailer, Edie Sedgwick, Eugene O'Neill.
DANIELLE OFRI: All did time at Bellevue. William S. Burroughs - he cut off one of his fingers and made the trip to Bellevue.
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WILLIAM S BURROUGHS: Circuits in his brain flickering out like lightning and...
OFRI: Who else? Charlie Parker.
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OFRI: Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie.
ULABY: Ofri started working at Bellevue during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and spent much of last year treating patients in its COVID tents. She tries to combine her skills as a medical professor and an attending physician with editing the literary magazine, which she founded with colleagues frustrated by a system more about checking boxes than sharing histories and humanity. The magazine, she says, was intended to try to correct the sense that in modern medicine...
OFRI: Doctors and nurses don't listen, that patients try so hard to get their story told.
ULABY: But the submissions come not just from doctors, nurses and patients; anyone who writes about healing and bodies in crisis can get published here. The magazine's been an important entry for writers like Celeste Ng. She wrote the celebrated novel "Little Fires Everywhere" that was made into a series on Hulu. One of her very first publications was in the Bellevue Literary Review.
CELESTE NG: I liked the idea that a hospital that was so well known for helping people understand themselves better, come to terms with who they were, what issues they were struggling with, was also putting out a literary journal.
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SALEEM HUE PENNY: My uncle's hand-me-down compression socks. Life expectancy falls. Nevertheless...
ULABY: That's this year's winner of the magazine's poetry contest. Saleem Hue Perry (ph) contributed in a year that saw issues dedicated to themes like medicine in racism and COVID. The next issue is about recovery. Dr. Danielle Ofri says when we eventually look back on this awful pandemic, the writing people will remember will not be the CDC guidelines; it will be the novels.
OFRI: The poems, the nonfiction renderings of this that bring the human side that will be the complement to the data that we so clearly need.
ULABY: Patients do not use the language of data, Ofri says; they use poetry and metaphor. It feels like this; it hurts like that. Doctors need to respect such poetics.
OFRI: You can go to the doctor and have your illness cured. That's different from being healed. And plenty of patients, I think, leave our offices, leave our hospitals, and their illness is cured, but they don't feel healed.
ULABY: Submissions to the Bellevue Literary Review went up during the pandemic, with more stories from health care workers than ever before. Ofri says attending to those stories helps heal those who've been helping the rest of us during this dark and painful period.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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