Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan has welcomed many luminaries of the arts and letters over the years … as patients in its famous psychiatric ward and mortuary. Norman Mailer, Edie Sedgewick, Eugene O’Neil, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie – all have spent time at Bellevue, says Dr Danielle Ofri, who co-founded the Bellevue Literary Review 20 years ago this fall.
Ofri thought it was important to start a literary magazine in the country’s oldest public hospital, because storytelling, she says, is an underrated aspect of her profession. While working with medical students, she noticed that their patient reports all looked alike.
“This is a 57 year old white woman with a medical history of coronary heart disease, blah blah blah – and I really had to tell them to drop the jargon and ask the patient: ‘What was thatWhen did your doctor tell you that you had congestive heart failure? ‘ ” she explains.
Ofri encouraged her students to view patient histories and physical exams as an opportunity to connect, rather than boring paperwork.
“And it was amazing the things we learned,” she says. “For example, there was a patient who had both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis but didn’t really know they were two different things. And that wasn’t until the student started to telling her about it that she realized they were two different illnesses. “
The writings of healthcare workers during the pandemic deserve special attention
The culture at Bellevue lends itself to experimentation, says Ofri; she started there as a young doctor during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
“My co-editor, Jerome Lowenstein was a nephrologist; he was the non-fiction editor,” she recalled in a recent interview with NPR. “And then we recruited Ronna Wineberg as a fiction editor and two poets as a poetry editor, but the submissions came from all walks of life! The doctors were only a small percentage.”
Ofri has also written over half a dozen books for the general public; his last, When we hurt: a doctor faces a medical error, just came out in paperback.
Last year, she treated patients in the COVID-19 tents in Bellevue.
The Bellevue Literary Review saw a spike in submissions during the pandemic, Ofri says. Publishers in 2020 received over 4,000 poems, essays and stories. Those of healthcare workers should be particularly cared for, Ofri notes. We need to listen to our healthcare workers, she says, in order to help them heal.
Entire issues of the BLR have been devoted to themes such as COVID, family, medicine and racism. The next one will be on recovery.
Literature can examine how bodily health and societal health are related
Ofri says that literature and medicine share some critical qualities: observation. Precision. Empathy.
“You can go to the doctor and get your disease cured. It’s different to being cured,” she said. “And a lot of patients, I think, are leaving our offices, leaving our hospitals, and their disease is cured. But we don’t feel cured.”
Since Ofri’s assistance in its founding, the Bellevue Literary Review has fostered the careers of rightfully famous writers, including Leslie Jamison (Recovery) and Céleste Ng (Small fires everywhere).
The magazine ran Ng’s short story “Girls at Play,” which won a Pushcart Award in 2012, shortly after the author graduated from the University of Michigan’s Master of Fine Arts program. “I liked the idea that a hospital so well known for helping people to understand each other better, to come to terms with who they were, was also publishing a literary journal,” Ng told NPR.
The fractures – poor health, if you will – in our society can be examined almost clinically in the literature, she says.
“Our health and our mental health and our societal health are all really linked to each other,” Ng observes, adding that a literary journal that comes out of a hospital reflects on these things together. “It’s a way of thinking about what we think, about our health, bodily speaking and also about how we connect to each other, how we function as a society, how we we relate to each other as human beings. “