COVID Writing Goes Viral: How Literary and Social Media Writing Became a Lifeline During the Pandemic

; Abraham Verghese, MD; Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD

Disclosures

March 26, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

This is a special episode of Medicine and the Machine in celebration of Bellevue Literary Review's 20th anniversary. The program premiered earlier this week on the Bellevue Literary Review and Medscape YouTube channels. If you missed it, here's the discussion with our hosts, Dr Eric Topol; Dr Abraham Verghese; and Dr Danielle Ofri, editor-in-chief of Bellevue Literary Review.

Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD: Hello and welcome. I'm Danielle Ofri, the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. I'm pleased to welcome you to "COVID Writing Goes Viral: How Literary and Social Media Writing Became a Lifeline During the Pandemic."

I'm so glad to be joined by my colleagues Abraham Verghese and Eric Topol. Dr Verghese is a professor and vice chair of medicine at Stanford University. He's also a bestselling author, of Cutting for Stone, My Own Country, and The Tennis Partner. Dr Topol is a cardiologist and the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. He's also editor-in-chief of Medscape. His Twitter account has been considered one of the most reliable sources of information about COVID. His most recent book is Deep Medicine.

Welcome, Abraham. Welcome, Eric.

Abraham Verghese, MD: Thank you.

Eric J. Topol, MD: Thanks.

Ofri: So, we're here kind of at the 1-year mark of COVID. And I'm wondering, even before we start, if each of you might want to reflect on what that mark feels like and then perhaps how that relates to what you've been reading as we hit this anniversary.

Verghese: A little more than a year ago, in February, I was sitting with my editor in New York and it was a time of innocence. I was very aware of COVID. We had a few cases here in the Bay Area but not many. And New Yorkers, for the most part, were still blissfully unaware of it. I was very conscious of it when walking through the corridors and going to restaurants at that time. Look at what's unfolded since then. I was meeting with my editor about a novel, and the novel is still all I've been doing all year. But really thinking about COVID — and I'm sure influenced by the strange experience of being confined to some degree and all the changes we saw in the hospital — it's been an epic year. I think it was Stalin or Lenin who said that sometimes weeks go by and they seem like years, and then a year goes by and it seems like a week. And that's kind of how this feels.

Ofri: Eric, how do you feel on this 1-year(ish) anniversary?

Topol: Thinking back, February 29 was the first death in the US and there was a sense of denial that it was going to go away somehow. Yet, in conferring with my colleague Kristian Andersen, who has particular expertise in outbreaks and pandemics, he said, "It's coming; it's going to be big and bad." And was he ever right.

It's been a year of tragedy, but we also now see the effects of vaccines, which really are a miracle. In fact, I was recently discussing with a fellow (who I thought was very intelligent) and asked, "Are you going to take the vaccine?" He said, "No; it happened too fast. I don't trust it."

We just can't win. We have something that is truly one of the greatest triumphs of medicine and science research in history. And you have people thinking that there's something wrong with that because it's too good to be true. So, it's kind of the best and worst of all packed into 1 year. But I think it's exciting to know that we're moving toward an exit ramp of some kind.

Ofri: It's interesting to think of COVID as its own narrative, as its own story. I think back to where we were at Bellevue a year ago in March. We really thought that this was going to be like Ebola. We were set for Ebola. We had our unit all ready, with four isolation rooms. We can handle whatever comes through the door — Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers, yellow fever, plague. If it comes to Bellevue, we have the resources for them. That was really what we thought. We have the Ebola team all ready, and then the rest of us will just keep doing our stuff.

I think we did not have the ability to imagine how the story would play out. And each day it was like the page just kept turning. We would talk about a patient and think this was it. Every day was a new dramatic action. Looking back now, after a year, so much has happened, so much grief and sadness, but also so much written. And I'm really intrigued — I think we all are — by the written word in its various forms. I'm wondering, Abraham, when did you first notice an uptick of writing, either journalistic, literary, or social media, as the pandemic unfolded that made you think, Huh, we're someplace new?

Verghese: It was evolving so quickly that the kind of writing that we might be used to seeing that really developed a theme didn't work. It didn't work because those sorts of writers simply didn't have the information. So I found myself much more inclined to read people like Eric, for example, who were topical, and it was changing every single day, even as it is right now. That really represented a shift for me, at least in recognizing that the usual sources that I might go to were already old by the time I saw them compared with, say, Twitter and more immediate sources like that. That was a big change for me.

Changing What We Read

Ofri: Until last year, I really saw social media as a sort of fluff on the side. There were some fun, witty, cute things, but it didn't really exist in any needful way. This was the first time when I saw the real utility of this. And I agree that, Eric, you were one of the lifelines there. In the best of times, I don't have time to keep up with my journals and all the reading that we should be doing. So I rely on journal club and colleagues. But in this environment, when things were changing so quickly, it was really helpful to have someone like you and many others keeping up with developments for us.

Maybe you could speak to whether and how you saw your social media life change during COVID.

Topol: Oh, no question, Danielle. Back in late February or March, I made a conscious decision that I was going to get deep into this. It was kind of a natural choice, since I'm an information junkie and I look at journals and the newspapers and whatever sources, to see if I could help provide some navigational component for us, for at least the science-medical community, if not other people who wanted to follow. I quickly started to double or triple the number of posts I would do in a day quickly. And that's been maintained for the year since.

It kind of took over my life because then if I wasn't putting out a lot of information, people thought maybe I wasn't alive or something was wrong with me.

Ofri: I didn't want to ask, but how many hours a day do you spend or did you spend in the peak of the pandemic? The things you put out there were thorough, researched; you had clearly read the whole paper, highlighted the information. Was that your entire day?

Topol: No, but I get up early just so I can read. I usually do 2 or 3 hours of reading early in the morning and then not much during the day — a little bit here and there. And then in the evening again, it's another couple or few hours. So, it's mainly the beginning and end of the day that I am able to get the reading in.

But the other thing I would just point out is, I archive my tweets. That's the way I keep track of everything through Twitter. So it's not only sharing; it's also helping me because then I can find stuff again.

Ofri: Oh, really? That's your file cabinet now?

Topol: Yes. It has been for the past 11 years. It's become convenient, because even though I was posting a lot more stuff, it helps to have it so well organized. I could get to anything I want. And that turns out to be really helpful when you're trying to figure out what you barely remember from a week or month earlier.

Topol: Is that something, Eric, that you do through Twitter? Is that a function of Twitter or something you do separate from it?

Topol: No, through Twitter. I use AllMyTweets.net and you basically have it all filed in there. And if I just put in the topic hashtag or any extra word, I can find any one of these tens of thousands of tweets about COVID. So it's actually a really great way to keep track of stuff.

Verghese: That's wonderful.

Ofri: The big thing I found on Twitter mainly was the educational aspect. There was a real switch to something almost like on-the-fly journal clubs. There were little tutorials on vent management, ABG [arterial blood gas] refreshers. These were things that I really needed and I found them so helpful. Or discussions about what people are doing, such as proning or how to interpret x-rays in the age of COVID. I had not seen that before and maybe I had missed it, but I found a utility in it, getting a little tutorial from someone in Italy who I had never met before, but now they could teach it from their experience.

Abraham, you are so involved in education. Do you see this somehow changing the educational models we are going to use?

Verghese: I think it already has. The other thing that happened for us is that our grand rounds, where we would have maybe 200 people, became this event where we had 1000 people. And it was all by Zoom. I can't see us going back to the old model without combining it with some sort of function like that.

Though I'm certainly not a Twitter expert, I read a lot of it, but I never really quite got the hang of it, as Eric likes to tease me. But there's an important function that we all exercise, consciously or not, where you really have to filter out the stuff that you look at on Twitter. And this filtering function is so key. You really have to listen to the people you want to listen to, and start making value judgments about some of the other stuff you hear but you begin to realize is a bit more on the fringe than you're ready for. That was interesting to me.

Ofri: Although I sometimes wonder if there are things you'll never learn because the feed is prefiltered by who one follows and who one doesn't follow. Maybe there's a whole other thing out there that I'll never learn about because somehow our little worlds don't overlap. You can make the analogy politically or socially; but even just educationally, maybe I am missing out on the people who are reviewing these other journals and I'll never learn about them. And that's just happenstance because of who I happen to be following.

Topol: I want to acknowledge what Abraham mentioned. The bad information, disinformation, is certainly an issue that has to be dealt with. But what I have found especially stimulating is this transdisciplinary interaction — making friends and having all these new synapses worldwide. I just wrote a piece with Roberto Burioni, who is the Tony Fauci of Italy, and he's become a good friend. I had no idea that some 25 years ago he was at Scripps Research as a postdoc. I've also gotten to know Eddie Holmes in Australia through Twitter. All these different people in different areas, whether it's virology, immunology, structural biology; the list just goes on and on. So it's been the most intellectually stimulating time of my life, and I don't even have any background in any of this stuff: infectious disease, immunology, or virology. In fact, I used to avoid all that stuff. But it's very interesting, it really is.

Verghese: What Eric has done so well in our podcast, Medicine and the Machine, is introduce us to scientists who I'm not sure I would ever have known of in other circumstance. But their voices have emerged on Twitter as being reliable sources of information in epidemiology and virology and various fields. I sort of got to watch Eric find the right voices on Twitter. And if you're following him, then you wind up learning about these other folks as well.

A Wave of Literature

Ofri: I actually found a parallel issue, if I can switch the conversation a bit, to the literary writing or journalistic writing that came out of COVID in which many people wrote about their experiences. They were so intense. I found that it was a way to learn about what other people in the hospital do. Nurses were writing, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, cafeteria workers, people working in nursing homes; these were people writing about things you might not come across in your daily little world. Talk about interdisciplinary. I felt that there was this chance to delve into the world.

Right now in the Bellevue Literary Review, we're publishing our prize-winning essays, two of which are fiction. One is by a physical therapist who writes a piece about a physical therapist during COVID. I had never really thought about the physical therapist connection to the patient and how that works. And then another piece that we're publishing is the public health worker who is sent to go talk to a recluse and let them know about the pandemic, and try to get them to wear a mask; some poor, young recruit draws the short straw and has got to go out into the countryside and deal with an ordinary old person. I didn't really think about what those people do. And I think there was quite a flowering of narrative writing and essay writing.

Abraham, anything that you've read, or perspectives that have caught your eye?

Verghese: Very much like you, I was intrigued by many of the personal narratives. There are so many of them, and again, you need the filtering function. I must say, I think I found it really helpful to reach back to older narratives and make comparisons, whether it was Camus' The Plague or The Decameron, and find that as much as things have changed, some things haven't changed at all.

I've been really intrigued by the dissonance between the wonderful science that Eric talks about and the degree of social discord and disjunction between that and real scientific facts. In fact, maybe unlike some of you guys, I sometimes search on Twitter under names like Scott Atlas, who is one of our former colleagues here at Stanford, just to remind myself how we can make all these advances in science, but if we don't make advances to change the narrative that affects behavior in such negative ways, we really haven't advanced that far from past pandemics. There have been epidemics forever, but they always come as a surprise. And there's always this other element that you have to deal with beyond the plague itself.

Topol: One thing, Danielle, that I noticed about the pandemic is The Atlantic magazine. I had never seen it shine like this, but it had such extraordinary pieces on the medical side, the science side, every aspect. Whether it was Ed Yong or Zeynep Tufekci or another author, so many people there have written some extraordinary work, some major long reads that are like multiple book chapters. But they're well worth it. I was surprised how they really came to life in so many respects and also that they got behind the data tracking. Interestingly, the CDC failed — it didn't even show up — but The Atlantic sponsored this COVID-19 tracking project. For a magazine to contribute in that way really differentiates them from so many others, at least in my opinion.

Ofri: I actually felt the same way about The New Yorker, which seemed to be almost like a scientific and social resource. There was such intense writing, both on-the-ground, first-person writing, but also scientific background that I found educational. In fact, when Lawrence Wright had his piece, "The Plague Year" — which I think was maybe 70,000 words when he turned it in and was still 35,000 words when it published — I almost didn't read it, thinking, Can I live through this again? It was absolutely riveting. He had published a novel about a pandemic just in 2020, and now here he was writing the nonfiction counterpart.

Topol: You're right. That was the whole issue. It was amazing.

Ofri: Maybe we could step back a little bit, as Abraham intimated, and think about some of the other things that we have read in the past. I thought a lot about José Saramago's Blindness, the plague of blindness as this metaphor. I wonder how many of us became blind during this epidemic — blind to facts. On the one hand, the medical profession, the healthcare world, actually became quite unified during this. We really were in this boat together in a powerful way. But at the same time, the world around us seemed to shatter and the amount of blindness just staggered me.

I'm wondering if you want to share anything that you've thought about that's reflected upon what we see today.

Verghese: Maybe I'll begin by saying that I used to teach Camus' The Plague in various different settings. I thought it was a book that I knew well, but I saw it in an entirely different light this past year. I actually saw the genius behind it. I mean, here's a guy who I don't think actually lived through a plague. This was an imaginary town based on a city in Algeria. But he really anticipated all the social ills that we saw. And I think there were entire passages of the book that I had read before without really appreciating what he was getting at and seeing it come into play this year with us. So to me, the social discord was still the most intriguing story for me.

I'm a very slow writer, as you know, so I think it's going to take me a long while to sort of translate this into something meaningful, whether it's a short story or whether it informs a novel. But I think there was a great deal to learn there.

Ofri: You yourself have often described fiction as the great lie that tells the truth, and I think these are some examples. Love in the Time of Cholera also comes to mind, in the way that magical realism, which you would think is just the wrong thing we need at a time when we need facts, but sometimes the magical realism feels like it explains things in a way that the actual facts don't. I was also thinking about all of the writing that took place during the AIDS epidemic a generation before. There were a lot of healthcare workers who for the first time were writers and journalists, including And the Band Played On, and how that was formative in shaping the narrative of the epidemic for history; that became the draft of how we look back on it. We didn't really have that view until people wrote about it. I wonder who will be writing the book on this narrative of our current pandemic. And maybe it's going to be this collective narrative that we create with all of these strands of writing.

Verghese: The HIV epidemic was very special. It really began affecting very discrete groups and their voices were already not being heard very well. So, for example, for me, it was my first awareness of— I was not homophobic; I was homo-ignorant. And all of a sudden as a physician, I became intensely aware of gay men and there was so much that I learned from them. So I think the literature around HIV was also very much literature about gay men and about their lives and about their struggle and being marginalized. I suspect that this epidemic will be much more like the Great Depression or World War II where, as you said, it's going to inform all narrative. It's going to infuse itself and generations of kids, or at least this generation of kids and adults, every time they talk about their lives.

Topol: There are a couple of pandemic books already out there, one by Nicholas Christakis and another by Fareed Zakaria. I think it's premature to write the book on the pandemic and to try to predict where we go from here because we're still in the midst of it. I wish we were further along, but hopefully later this year we'll have a better sense. People are also writing about the idea of being able to avoid something like this in the future. I came across an article today in National Geographic about this being described as a natural disaster when it actually is a manmade disaster, and how we aren't putting nearly enough effort toward climate change and all the things that we're doing to our planet that induce this sort of thing. There's just so much we can learn to hopefully avoid this type of catastrophe in the years ahead. So I'm still waiting to see what's written; there'll be so many books written, I'm sure. I'm waiting for "the book." I actually think either one of you could do it.

Ofri: My money's on Lawrence Wright.

'It's Changed the Story of What It Means to Be a Doctor or a Nurse'

Verghese: One narrative that we didn't talk about, Danielle, which I think is important to point out, is the healthcare narrative. You alluded to it, but the initial period when our house staff, in all the various hospitals, especially in New York, were under so much stress and under so much personal risk while dealing with their own families. To me, that was a very poignant story. We couldn't quite be in their shoes. We were always as attendings, always one level removed in a sense, and I think that this is going to color the way medicine is shaped in years to come, the style of medicine. I don't quite know how, but they really have been battle-tested and altered by this in a way.

Perhaps you can share your own view on what's happened with the house staff at Bellevue.

Ofri: I think this will be their defining characteristic of the kind of doctors that they are. I believe it will create a certain resilience of just being flexible. Thinking that things are the way they are is not good enough. To be able to move on a dime is just a different way of thinking. And that knowledge is very fluid. Maybe they'll be less cemented into certain views because they're used to being in a changing environment. But also, what you mentioned, that psychologically and personally, I think many were harmed in a way that maybe didn't happen for other generations of trainees who weren't put at that risk — and often without the recognition or remuneration that that was deserved.

I think also about the medical students, many of whom were graduated early and tossed into the fire as well. And then I think about all the nurses who were traveling from other places and came voluntarily to New York during our worst period of it, or traveled to other places that needed them. What an experience. And of course, some of them, many of them, did contract COVID, and not a small number perished around the world. It's not a small number of healthcare workers. That part is heartbreaking when you see that people have gone to do something, to take care of people in the most difficult circumstance, and have gotten ill or have died. That's a tragedy that I think a lot of generations of trainees have not faced. So this is really significant for this generation.

Topol: Something that also came out of it in a positive way: Not only was there a common enemy — the virus — for the healthcare workforce, but as already mentioned, just extraordinary writing about people's experiences. Not just from physicians and nurses, but from the entire profession, including, as you say, physical therapists and pharmacists and paramedics and on and on. But what is striking is that this was occurring on top of burnout; there was already a global burnout crisis. Without protective gear and all the things that you would have thought would be the priority, what could have been the turning point for the worst time in medicine in fact was a rallying cry.

There were more applications for medical school than ever before. The pandemic actually put the profession out there to the public and to young people as an alluring path, which is really striking because people were put at risk, put in the fire, and yet more and more people now are craving to be physicians. I think that's probably true across other specialties in healthcare, too. So it's fascinating what the impact was over time.

Ofri: In some ways, it's changed the story of what it means to be a doctor or a nurse. I think we had a couple of generations and there are a couple of decades where it was a little confusing as to what is a narrative of a healthcare worker. A lot of it was issues about money and reimbursements, and a lot of it was technocratic. I think a lot of the burnout did come from that. And this reminded us of the real baseline of what it means to be in healthcare, of taking care of patients.

Our medical director, Nate Link, just published a book called The Ailing Nation, where he looked at our nation as though the US were a patient with a chronic illness, and he took the chief-of-medicine kind of look at it. It was a fascinating book. But one thing he did, I was just reading an excerpt, was that when it came to the COVID pandemic, he prioritized patients. Among staff in the hospital, there are different political views and personal views, but it's time to take care of patients. All that was dropped; there was no question that everyone puts all that aside, because that's the profession. That is what you do.

Whereas in politics and for many of our leaders, sadly, that was not the case. They didn't drop everything and say, "Okay, we have this most important thing. Everything else is secondary." And it reiterates why we're all in this profession and why people want to be in it, because there is a moral clarity.

A lot of people during the pandemic were suffering not just from boredom, but from lack of purpose. We didn't have that problem. We had more purpose than we needed and more to do than we needed. But there is something there that helps us with the morale. I don't want to paint over the other difficult issues in healthcare now and the true burnout and moral injury that are still there. But it is helpful to get that reminder of really what is the underpinning of the profession.

I was going to shift to another book that I was looking back at; it's from a couple of years ago, called Contagious, by Priscilla Wald, who I think is an anthropologist or sociologist. She was really interested in this idea of the outbreak narratives, like, why do some illnesses take hold? And she was positing that what makes a certain illness really grab us is that it's got this sort of outbreak narrative, that it comes from the deep, dark, primitive world and emerges out and it takes over the civilized world. So you end up with movies like The Hot Zone. No one's making big movies about malaria or about diarrheal illnesses that kill as many, if not more, people. But in COVID — a little like SARS and avian flu — we saw in the beginning the idea caught our attention that it was coming from China, from the market.

In fact, I had a conversation yesterday in clinic with a patient about the vaccine and she said, "I don't want to get it because it comes from bats and rats." I tried to explain that a lot of viruses came from bats, but that the vaccine doesn't come from them. I could not convince her that it didn't come from bats. It's such a powerful narrative.

'You Defeat the Monster, but You Are Now Transformed'

Verghese: I remember when I first came to this country in the 1970s, the movie that was playing in theatres was Jaws, a blockbuster by this unknown director who is very well known now. But it was a monster from the deep, and it came up and terrorized the small town, and a couple of people stepped forward. It was pointed out to me in a book I was reading recently that this is really the original, oldest narrative in the world, the narrative of Gilgamesh, recorded on cuneiform script on 20 stone tablets. It was about a monster and the hero Gilgamesh. He gets special powers and special tools. And in a way, we've been telling that story ever since.

I think you're right; there is a monster narrative here. And the nice thing about those narratives is that it's never just one hero stepping forward. It's that they step forward and they find resources within themselves or they find special powers and special tools. And it's never coming back to where you were. You defeat the monster, but you are now transformed. You're in a new place. I think that is very applicable to where we are with COVID. We're one day going to get to normal. But normal isn't going to look like what normal was before this all began last February.

Ofri: I wonder if you see writing as changing as a result of this. I'm thinking, like Abraham, how do you immerse yourself in a novel when there's a novel playing out right around you all the time? Does it change how we write?

Verghese: That's a good question. I'm reading a lot of good writing, but I'm also reading a lot of bad writing. You know, there's nothing stopping anyone from writing anything and publishing it, whether it's on a blog or self-publishing. And so, again, it's very much like Twitter. I think you have to use the filtering function. But stories are fundamental to our lives. And we gravitate to ones that resonate with us, typically because they're giving us some instructions for living. And that can be a timeless old masterpiece or it can be something current. But there is a standard, and I think it's clear that you have to meet the standard. It's not enough to just be topical. You also have to fulfill these elements where the reader comes away satisfied, transformed, and shares the epiphany that the hero shares. Those things are pretty timeless. There are human characteristics. The form changes, the topic changes, but the elements, I don't think, change that much.

Topol: The experience I've had is that people are reading less. Their attention span is shorter. And there is, as Abraham points out, no shortage of writing. But the ones I find most helpful, and the ones I try to emulate, are the ones that are succinct and astute. They really convey some unique insight rather than just regurgitating something or other, which doesn't feel helpful. It's hard, at least for me, to try to write anything long these days because there's so much going on. As you touched on, Danielle, there is a movie going on and it's been a horror show; and hopefully it's going to be a happy ending show out there. But the attention span was bad before, and I think it's even worse now.

Ofri: So are you writing a new book now, Eric, or have you given up? You're just going to do Twitter?

Topol: Well, I've thought about it, but I have no plan at this point. If I did, it would have to be something where I really thought I could contribute something meaningful, that it would fulfill those criteria. And I haven't yet come to that. There are going to be so many books about how the United states messed it up so bad; but I don't want to do that. If it ever came, as Abraham said, as an epiphany of an angle that was just really neat, then maybe at that point.

Ofri: I appreciate that everyone's attention span is short, and social media fills that niche. And with COVID we wanted those quick things. But what I find that social media lacks is, where does the nuance come in? What happens with ambiguity, vulnerability? I think so much of that came up during this pandemic, and that doesn't translate well into 140 characters. We need poets and the novelists and the people to write the 35,000-word articles to delve into them. Although we all say, "Oh, I can't read another book," how is social media going to do that for all these other parts that the pandemic brings up?

Topol: Well, that's the storytelling that you're not going to get on Twitter. At least they went up to 280 characters. There's no storytelling on Twitter or any social media, but that's why I mention Walter Isaacson's book, The Code Breaker. He's one of the great storytellers. For people who can do that, it's well worth their time to delve into it.

But there has been ambiguity: Should you wear a mask? Should you not wear a mask? How important is ventilation? Should schools open or close? Everything you could think of, there's been ambiguity about it at some point, if not constant ambiguity. And you don't get that straightened out in the 280-character posts.

A Pitch for Poetry

Ofri: If I can put in a pitch for one thing that's both concise and can be brief, but also can pull in nuance, ambiguity, I would propose poetry. I think poetry has that unique ability to dispense with the fact-based narrative and take some essence of something ambiguous or vulnerable and pull that right out. But by using metaphor — and I know we have a fraught history of thinking about illness as metaphor and whether that works or not — but maybe this would be the golden age of poetry. This is a way to deal with a short attention span but fill a need.

Why do we read literary journals? (I have a stack back here.) Why do we want these things? Because getting those little facts about the data are not enough. We need those; they are important. But it's like the difference between curing and healing. If you can give the right antibiotic, you can cure the disease. But the patient may still be miserable. Something else is still there. Five hundred thousand people have died. Millions have survived COVID, but many of them still are in need of a lot. And the fact that they've survived the disease isn't sufficient. That's obviously necessary. And so I will put in a pitch for poetry, or maybe the novella will be the new thing.

Verghese: I'm like you; I love poetry. One definition I've heard of poetry is it's when the head and the heart are saying the same thing. Poetry has that ability to connect the facts with the feelings when it works. Well, unfortunately, it's not widely read. It doesn't take the country by storm the way a movie or a novel does. It should, but I find myself getting quite a bit of solace from reading poetry. And we talked about all the different forms of narrative. But there's been some interesting poetry being published in many of the literary journals, in The New Yorker, and elsewhere that have really echoed the times in a beautiful way.

Ofri: If you think about Amanda Gorman's poem that she read at the inauguration, that took the country by storm. One thing we haven't touched on yet is the intersection of the COVID pandemic with the recognition of systemic racism, the delayed reckoning that came out with the murder of George Floyd. I think that brought in another current of writing that wouldn't have happened without COVID. Or wouldn't have been received in the same way. There's something about these things happening together that was incredibly powerful. And I think her poem really demonstrated that. There are going to be encyclopedias written about this. But in a short poem, I thought she captured so much of that in a way that you could not look away.

Topol: What she did for poetry in this country, if not beyond, is extraordinary. And I agree completely with you about this. I wonder where this is headed. The power of poetry perhaps has been, in this era, especially pronounced. And as you say, the novella. These shorter ways of conveying powerful emotions.

The pandemic was bad enough, but we also have the death of George Floyd to add to yet another dimension of catastrophe, a reckoning which still obviously has never been adequately addressed. So you have the depth of what's been going on here this past year. I just can't imagine the so many different dimensions of horror that we've been living through and how we can get so numb, because it just is so much at any given moment of time.

Ofri: It brings it back to Saramago's Blindness. Maybe we do have an epidemic of blindness in so many aspects of life, and reading a book like that, written years before all of this, to me feels so relevant because it feels like a way of, Oh, maybe that's where we are right now. And I don't have another way to put it into words.

Reading Recommendations

Ofri: We're drawing to our close. For our listeners, our audience, who would you recommend that we read now, either from the ages or going forward? Who are people that we should keep an eye on, either a name or a class of people that we haven't heard from that you think might be important to help us advance this story, this narrative of COVID?

Verghese: Since we started on that theme, I think making a plug for poetry, making a plug for African American writing, which has never gotten the recognition that it needs, whether it's James Baldwin or any of the contemporary writers. I think there is so much there that we can take away. And for me, this is the year for it. This is the time for it. I'm doing a lot of that sort of reading.

Topol: Well, besides the two of you? I saw the segment on 60 Minutes of Colson Whitehead. I'm really stimulated to read his novels. They seem to be strong and I haven't gotten to them yet, so they are on my list.

As far as insightful people, people who are kind of prescient, Zeynep Tufekci would fit the bill. She's a Turk who has this very unusual background in social aspects of the internet. But she seems to get everything right. It's just kind of amazing. And she's outside of the whole world of medicine and science, but she keeps on coming up with the right insights. For example, a couple of months ago, she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times with Michael Mina about how we should be thinking about one dose of the vaccine as a temporizing measure. And now it's become quite critical. She also questioned early recommendations against masks and the effects of indoor ventilation. So I kid her. I told her that her middle name is Prescient. She's one who I follow now, who I've gotten to know as a friend over the course of the pandemic.

Ofri: For the Bellevue Literary Review, we read manuscripts that come in from people and they really are a reflection of the times. We get about 4000 submissions per year. The batch that we're reading now has been really fascinating. There's a lot of writing — fiction, nonfiction, poetry — that grapples with those issues. And I'm really looking for voices we haven't heard from. I think about the nursing home crisis; we've heard so little from the people who work there in conditions that are next to impossible. I really want to hear those voices. And I think about many of the countries that haven't had a lot of say, those who are watching the vaccine rollout and the inequities in that — from international writers who have experienced it differently than we have. We often have blinders for where we are right now, and I'm just interested to look at those other places.

Thank you both, Abraham Verghese and Eric Topol. I'm Danielle Ofri and this is the Bellevue Literary Review. I invite you to check out BLR and also give an appreciation to Medscape for co-sponsoring this event. I hope you found it helpful. And please be in touch. If you have questions, thoughts, you know where to find us. Thank you so much.

Eric J. Topol, MD, is one of the top 10 most cited researchers in medicine and frequently writes about technology in healthcare, including in his latest book, Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again.

Abraham Verghese, MD, is a critically acclaimed best-selling author and a physician with an international reputation for his focus on healing in an era when technology often overwhelms the human side of medicine.

Daniele Ofri, MD, is clinical professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine. She writes regularly about healthcare and the doctor-patient relationship for several publications, including The New York Times, and is co-founder of Bellevue Literary Review.

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