A Cut Above
Dissecting a doctor's work as a writer
Anchorage Daily News
Montreal in the early 1980s. Jeanne Bereiter and her fellow first-year
medical students at McGill University have just filed into the
cavernous anatomy laboratory for the first day of class. They will soon
begin dissecting cadavers. The new students are nervous, excited.
"Then the head of anatomy entered the room," Bereiter writes in her nonfiction story, "Anatomy Lab." "A gaunt man in his 60s, with pale skin and an unimpeachable seriousness, he terrified us ..."
Part of that terror, she realizes now, was the all-pervading fear of
failure she and her classmates suffered at McGill - one of the oldest,
most prestigious medical schools in Canada. Unfortunately, the head of
anatomy did nothing to allay those fears.
"He spoke ... about the privilege we had of training as doctors and
how people had donated their bodies to science in order to help us.
Many were called (he said), few were chosen."
Two decades later, Jeanne Bereiter would write about her medical school
experience and submit her story to the 19th Annual University of
Alaska/ Creative Writing Contest. Out of more than 2,000 submissions,
hers was awarded the Grand Prize. She also received a first-place award
for Open to the Public Nonfiction.
Judges praised "Anatomy Lab" for taking readers into a world most of
us don't know -- medical school -- even though it touches the life of
anyone who visits a doctor. Bereiter's carefully crafted story also
raises several provocative questions.
How do beginning medical students learn to overcome the natural
squeamishness (if not outright horror) most people would experience if
they were asked to cut open human flesh? How do you learn to do that?
Well, there's anatomy lab for starters.
"Cutting into human flesh is a taboo. Breaking a taboo was what made
the first cut so difficult. ... My hand guiding the scalpel through the
skin was heavy. Was this really OK to do? That was the question that
stayed with me from the first. Was this really OK?"
The daunting authority of the head of anatomy implied that the answer
was yes -- and the medical students continued their incisions.
But Bereiter suggests they sometimes did so at the cost of
relinquishing their own free will. If they had misgivings they learned
to suppress them and follow orders. Or so it seemed one day near the
conclusion of nine months of anatomy lab.
For 42-year-old Jeanne Bereiter, now a child psychiatrist
practicing in Anchorage, the road to becoming a doctor -- and a writer
-- began in her birthplace of Madison, Wis., then wove through a series
of eastern university towns where her father worked as a professor of
psychology. When Jeanne was 9, her family moved to Toronto. Graduating
from high school there, she returned to the states for college, never
dreaming that her higher education would last 15 years.
It began with a four-year liberal arts degree from Evergreen College
in Olympia, Wash., where she specialized in English and creative
writing. She enjoyed writing, Bereiter says, but when she graduated she
decided to do something more tangible with her life. "I decided I
wanted to go to medical school."
But medical schools could hardly admit her. She'd only taken a single
college science course so far, a class in astronomy. So Bereiter
continued at Evergreen for a year, taking solid premed courses, and
graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in science. Then she was
accepted at McGill -- the medical school in her story -- and the long,
intense hours of study began.
"What I thought at the time," she says, "is this must be what it's
like for people going into the military. That you do things that set
you apart from other people, and it helps to form you into a cohesive
group and to identify with the thing you are going to become."
What she became, after four years, was a medical school graduate.
Then Bereiter began a two-year residency in family practice at
Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then she became a family
doctor, working two years in the western Canadian arctic village of
Inuvik, where she met and married her husband, Dr. Ivan Herceg. They
eventually moved south to the Canadian Rockies, where they began
raising their two young children. But after a half dozen years of
family practice -- "I delivered a lot of babies.... stitched up cuts,
that sort of thing" -- Bereiter realized that her heart was really in
another field of medicine: psychiatry.
"What I liked most was talking to people and hearing their stories," she says. "That's what I was best at."
So Bereiter and her family moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where she
began a two-year residency in general psychiatry at the University of
New Mexico, followed by a two-year residency in child and adolescent
psychiatry. At the same time, she began to examine her life and revisit
old passions -- including writing.
"I think that's a thing that happens to a lot of people when they go
into psychiatry," she says. "They start to realize things that they
used to really enjoy. ... I came from creative writing and then just
completely turned my back on it."
So she wrote "Anatomy Lab," a story, she says, she wouldn't have had the maturity or perspective to write much sooner.
Then last year, when Bereiter and her husband both completed their
residencies in Albuquerque, they decided to look for a less
crime-troubled environment than New Mexico to raise their two children,
Karen, 10, and Sam, 7. They decided on Alaska.
"We wanted to move somewhere in the United States that was a lot
like Canada ... but where the mountains met the sea," Bereiter says.
"And that meant Anchorage."
Last August, they moved to southwest Anchorage. Bereiter now works
as a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Anchorage's South Central
Counseling Center; Herceg works as an anesthesiologist at Providence
Alaska Medical Center.
She was just wondering whether she should stop trying to write for publication when she saw an announcement in the Daily News advertising the UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest. Now Bereiter is rethinking that decision.