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By Philip Yancey

Our Bodies, Our Stories, Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Yancey: Dr. Selzer, you led the two lives, surgeon and writer, simultaneously for how long?

Selzer: Seventeen or 18 years. It was difficult because, as a surgeon, I had to work every day or else I'd lose my nerve.

Yancey: Your nerve?

Selzer: Right. You see, it is an unnatural act to lay open the body of a fellow human being. If I missed a few days, it was difficult to go to the operating room and proceed. What is that phrase by Montaigne-la nonchalance bestial. It describes the process of becoming accustomed to the most awful things, like harvesting the organs of the brain-dead, for instance. We surgeons must develop that nonchalance in our work.

Komp: The same thing happens when I do a bone marrow aspirate on a little kid. It finally dawned on me when a grandmother came in and she went out like a light. The rest of us, including the parents, had grown accustomed to the horror.

Yancey: When I ask myself about your appeal as writers, I think of how your writing goes against the grain of science, which has become so reductionistic. You are rendering whole persons, whereas science is always breaking human activity down into tiny molecular actions and synapses.

Selzer: Unweaving the rainbow.

Yancey: Yes, Keats's phrase. Both of you resist that urge to atomize humanity. You retain--even heighten--the mystery of the person. In fact, I've noticed that both of you choose almost heroic, uplifting characters. Yet I know what doctors see: people who abuse their bodies, and sometimes their children; gunshot victims; diabetics who eat a half-gallon of ice cream and neglect their insulin. You see the cesspool of life, in many ways, yet you don't really write about those people.

Selzer: My own subject as a writer is, I would say, the wound. The wounded self. Whether it is abuse of the body or a gunshot wound or a gangrene of the leg or pus dripping, the wound seems to me to have a certain dark beauty in which I have reveled as a writer--and also, I think, as a doctor. ...

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