The Perspective of a Doctor in the Writing Community.
by Mara Zilda
“Are you really a doctor?”
I decided to start this article with the question I get asked the most. Yes, I am a medical doctor, graduated at 24, but also a writer, drawn mostly to fantasy and mythology.
I will try to make this article as readable as possible. So I will use the term medical condition, which includes ALL diseases, disorders, injuries, lesions and mental illnesses.
I am critical of medical conditions used in a book, so I am the worst person to read Sick Lit (The Fault in Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, etc) because I see all the flaws. I wonder “where did their symptoms go in this scene?” Even in books that don’t belong to this genre, the use of medical conditions for plot is often problematic with the condition surfacing to drive the plot, only to disappear after. For instance, character A has a panic attack at a crucial scene (note: that is not how it works), but never had symptoms of anxiety before.
I always strive to be medically accurate. When writing a battle scene, I will calculate how long it would take to heal any physical wounds as the story progresses. In fantasy, magic can only go so far. A battle, a war, would have no high stakes if there was a way to heal everyone in one go. Just like the real world, we should portray medical conditions to a certain accuracy. Even if they drive the plot, they should be consistent instead of vanishing when not needed. For instance, I have a pregnant character who is too weak for physical battle because of her pregnancy and other factors, but she still plays a crucial role behind the lines; in reality, only towards the end of the pregnancy would she be physically incapable of fighting.
How it feels to be a doctor in the writing community
First off, most of my friends are people I have met in the writing community. The second half of this article is for the small part of the writing community whose medical assumptions are often flawed and/or for those romanticizing certain conditions.
If you are often scrolling through Instagram like me, you have probably seen your share of:
TIPS ON HOW TO WRITE SCHIZOPHRENIA. HOW TO WRITE WALKING CORPSE SYNDROME?
And the caption is usually: “No, I don’t have it or do I know anyone with it. It’s not like I have a medical or psychological degree. I’m only a teen. Sources: these two websites I found online while searching for the symptoms.”
As a medical doctor who struggles with an array of medical conditions, some of which are mentioned in these types of posts, I read these from both perspectives, and I can clearly see their unintended harm.
We are seeing more captions clarifying the lack of medical/health care background, and that’s a small win, but quoting another article on this matter, ““Claiming in the beginning, “I do not have this/I am not a professional” doesn’t fully erase the possible harm done to different people, nor absolve anyone of consequences.”” Dallas Antonio.
These posts do a disservice to those that are struggling and are often misleading for the community, even more if it is just blunt copy-pasting, without critique. The ones that expect to learn something from this content deserve better. So next time you plan to write tips on a medical condition for social media, ask yourself why? Did you decide on the fly? Do you have it? Do you know someone that does? If yes, could you interview them?
To summarize, as someone who is chronically ill, I am not saying not to write about medical conditions; quite the contrary! What I do ask of all of you is to do better research. Keep in mind everyone experiences their condition differently and it is not a one size fits all portrait. And never take your character’s trauma, daily struggles, as lighthearted jokes.
Final note: Studies show in each group of five, at least one has a medical condition. Beware to not make it just a plot device, the medical condition only showing when it is convenient, but fading out when it is not convenient for the author.
Last but not least, a few resources you might need to write with medical accuracy:
On IG search for people with the medical condition you want to include in your project, bonus if the person is an advocate for correct representation.
Access Google Scholar instead of regular Google (it’s totally free!);
If using regular Google, here are the most reliable websites: PubMed, MedLinePlus, CDC (Center for Disease Control), MedScape, Merck Manuals (no, we do not approve WebMD in this household);
UpToDate and AMBOSS are the ones I use most, but doctors pay for both (you can ask me to check anything there for you if you aren’t sure what you found is accurate).
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