UCSF Geriatrics Professor Celebrates Her Literary Debut

Saturday, February 9, 2013

After finishing a reading from her collection of short stories, an audience member asked author Louise Aronson what her dream job was when she was a child.

“A writer or a professional basketball player,” replied Aronson without missing a beat.

Notably missing from Aronson’s childhood ambitions was any plan to become a doctor. Yet last week, Aronson stood before 50-plus people at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, not only as a published author, but also as an associate professor of Geriatrics at UCSF.

This marriage of writing and medicine is a natural fit for Aronson, whose new book,A History of the Present Illness — a collection of 16 interconnected stories — explores the nature of medicine and the humanity of doctors.

“What makes a good story is a person that you care about,” she said. “So if you’re in a profession that’s about caring about people, and you like paying attention to them, you have the incredible privilege of interacting with people at such meaningful moments, and the stories just fill up.”

The audience — which included a sizable contingent from UCSF — filled the front room of City Lights until people were pressed against the aging bookshelves.

Under the fading vintage posters heralding the bookstore’s progressive legacy, Aronson enumerated events from an immigrant woman’s bittersweet American life in “Twenty-Five Things I Know About My Husband’s Mother.”

She went on to provide an ambiguous account of how a physician ended up being incarcerated for a patient’s demise in “Giving Good Death,” and recounted the experience of a young Cambodian-American girl wetting her bed in “An American Problem.”

How does her debut book reading compare to giving medical presentations?

“Before the first two readings, I joked that I'd be far less anxious if I could just give my ‘Falls in Older Adults’ or ‘Public Medical Communications’ talk, or anything else I present about that's medical and evidence-based,” said Aronson.

“Reading my fiction definitely makes me feel more vulnerable, because it's more personal than presenting data, even though I try to make my medical lectures interesting and creative as well.”

There are not many uplifting stories in A History of the Present Illness, but this was by design. Most stories, Aronson said, unfold when bad things happen, which may explain why literature is such a natural fit for doctors.

However, she also acknowledged the challenge of pursuing careers in both medicine and creative writing, noting that it took 10 years to finish her book, in part because of the long stretches when she was focused on being a geriatrician and a medical educator.

For members of the UCSF community interested in exploring creative writing, Dr. Aronson recommends getting in touch with UCSF Medical Humanities, which co-sponsored her reading at City Lights.

In addition, she regularly blogs on her personal website (louisearonson.com/blog/) about writing, medicine and public medical communication. Although A History of the Present Illness just hit the bookshelves, on January 22, Aronson already has three more literary projects competing for her attention — a creative non-fiction book on aging, an anthology on public medical communication and a novel.