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Why a literary magazine at the nation's oldest public hospital matters more than ever

A laboratory in New York City's Bellevue Medical Center on May 17, 1949.
Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
A laboratory in New York City's Bellevue Medical Center on May 17, 1949.

Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital has hosted many luminaries of the arts and letters over the years ... as patients in its famous psychiatric ward, and in its morgue. Norman Mailer, Edie Sedgewick, Eugene O'Neil, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie — all spent time at Bellevue, says Dr. Danielle Ofri, who co-founded the Bellevue Literary Review20 years ago this fall.

Ofri believed it was important to start a literary magazine at the country's oldest public hospital because storytelling, she says, is an undervalued aspect to her profession. While working with medical students, she noticed their patient write-ups all sounded alike.

"This is a 57-year-old white female with a past medical history of coronary disease, blah blah blah — and I really had to tell them to drop the jargon, and ask the patient, 'What was it like when your doctor told you you had congestive heart failure?' " she explains.

Ofri encouraged her students to see taking patients' histories and physicals as an opportunity to connect, rather than as boring paperwork.

"And it was amazing the things that 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 not until the student began talking to her about it did she realize they were two different illnesses."

Health care workers' writing during the pandemic warrants special attention

The culture at Bellevue lends itself to experimentation, Ofri says; 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 remembered in a recent interview with NPR. "And then, we recruited Ronna Wineberg as fiction editor and two poets for poetry editor, but the submissions were from all walks of life! Medical folks were only a small percentage."

Ofri has also written more than half a dozen books intended for general audiences; her latest, When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error, just came out in paperback.

Last year, she treated patients in Bellevue's COVID-19 tents.

The Bellevue Literary Review saw a spike in submissions during the pandemic, Ofri says. Editors in 2020 received more than 4,000 poems, essays and stories. The ones from health care workers especially need to be tended to, Ofri notes. We need to listen to our health care workers, she says, in order to help them heal.

Entire issues of the BLR have been dedicated to themes such as COVID, family, and medicine and racism. The next one will focus on recovery.

Literature can examine how bodily health and societal health are connected

Ofri says that literature and medicine share certain critical qualities: Observation. Precision. Empathy.

"You can go to the doctor and have your illness cured. That's different from being healed," she says. "And plenty of patients, I think, leave our offices, leave our hospitals, and their illness is cured. But we don't feel healed."

Since Ofri helped start it, the Bellevue Literary Review has fostered the careers of writers who have become legitimately famous, including Leslie Jamison (The Recovering) and Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere).

The magazine published Ng's short story "Girls at Play," which won a 2012 Pushcart Prize, soon after the author graduated from the University of Michigan's MFA program. "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, was also putting out a literary journal," Ng tells NPR.

The fractures — the ill health, if you will — of our society can be examined almost clinically by literature, she says.

"Our health and our mental health and our societal health are all really connected to each other," Ng observes, adding that a literary journal that comes out of a hospital thinks about these things together. "It is a way that we're thinking about what we're thinking, what our health is, bodily speaking and then also how we connect with each other, how we function as a society, how we relate to each other as human beings."

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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