By day, Daniela Lamas, MD, is a pulmonary and critical-care physician at the Brigham, faculty at Harvard Medical School and serious-illness program researcher at Ariadne Labs. She is also working to start a clinic for intensive care unit (ICU) survivors. In her elusive off hours, she is a storyteller, with beautifully crafted language published in The New York Times and in her first book, You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death and In Between.
A writer at heart, Lamas has skillfully balanced her passion for journalism and the written word with her medical career path since high school. Today, she aims to carve out more time for creative work while grappling with a burning question on behalf of her patients: What happens after survival?
Can you tell us about your writing background?
DL: It’s funny because writing has always been important to me, but I hesitate to call myself a writer, for some reason. It’s increasingly part of my day-to-day life, and I love reporting and telling stories. I’m generally a shy person, but having a story assignment gives me an excuse to talk to people. I worked on my high school newspaper and I was editor of my college’s daily paper, which I loved. I even took a little time off after college to work for a newspaper. Writing has been within me for as long as I can remember.
How did you find yourself on a medical career path?
DL: I’m from a family of a lot of physicians except for my mother, who was a ballet dancer. Ballet was inaccessible to me because I was not born a dancer myself, so I was inspired to pursue medicine. I went to medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, where I also completed my internship and residency. Medical school was all about memorization, and I didn’t have much time or energy to write during my clinical years. I eventually returned to Boston for my subspecialty fellowship and research; I also did some freelance reporting during that time.
Where do your stories come from?
DL: Nearly all the stories I tell come from the hospital. I do a lot of personal writing about patients and their time in the ICU. On any given day, patient interactions spark multiple questions, which transform into shorter nonfiction memoirs. One of my goals is to write lay-friendly stories that are accessible to a wider audience. We often need to change the details per patient privacy requirements, but I still try to ensure the spirit of the person’s story is reflected in the final piece.
What inspired your book, You Can Stop Humming Now?
DL: Some of it is personally based and some of it is reported. The book is a compilation of essays illustrating what happens to a patient after surviving intensive care. As a physician, you’re trained to help your patients survive. I wanted to explore the idea of what happens after. This concept is interesting to me as a human being and as a doctor. People’s stories aren’t black and white. At any given time, there are 100,000 chronically ill patients in the U.S., and with modern medicine, many survive but face new obstacles. As many as one-third of all ICU patients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder post-discharge, for example, and we don’t have a way of overseeing their mental and physical health once they leave our care. As medical advances progress, I think it’s more important than ever to initiate these delicate conversations with our patients and their families. Each patient deserves a comprehensive care plan no matter their condition or location.
How do you find time to write?
DL: Since my work is more research-based than clinical these days, I’m fortunate enough to expand my mornings, evenings and weekends to accommodate both writing and work. Looking ahead, I’m hoping to carve out dedicated writing time, though.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
DL: If you want to write, just believe that even if what you are saying has been said before — and it probably has been — you have a unique viewpoint. As health care professionals, we are privy to so many moments of sadness, joy and grace. My advice to anyone looking to write is to just go for it.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
DL: From a medical standpoint, Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, is fantastic in his ability to translate his work into impactful stories. I also like Perri Klass, MD, a pediatrician writer in New York, and I have a penchant for Robin Cook’s medical thrillers.
What is the best part about writing?
DL: I really enjoy the process. I like the challenge of making a sentence work and the minutia it entails. I’m working to become a better writer now more than ever.
Any final thoughts?
DL: I feel lucky to have worked with colleagues who support and encourage my pursuit of non-research writing throughout my career. I couldn’t have gotten this far without them.