The following interview with Frank J. Edwards was published in Summer 2011 by Rochester Medicine, a publication of the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Q&A with Frank Edwards
An alumnus finds enjoyment in the practice of medicine and in writing about a murderous medical school dean.
Frank J. Edwards, M.D. (M ’79), is an emergency medicine physician who loves to write. In 1994, he started the first writing workshop for University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry students and taught in the program for 15 years.
A faculty member in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the 1990s, Edwards also served as the department’s acting chairman. He left academic medicine to start a regional emergency medicine group, now called Delphi Emergency Physicians, where he continues to serve as the medical director, as well as working clinically in several emergency departments in the Rochester and Finger Lakes Region.
He is the author of several books, including the medical thriller Final Mercy, a collection of poetry and short stories called It’ll Ease The Pain, and two books of nonfiction on medical issues, Medical Malpractice and The M&M Files.
The novel Final Mercy (Zumaya Publications) tells the story of the director of a university emergency department who is working to modernize the department but who is stymied by a power-hungry dean. Then someone tries to murder the former dean.
RM: Where did you get the idea for a dangerous dean?
Certainly not from any of the wonderful deans I knew at the Medical Center, I have to admit. When I first started drafting Final Mercy, the dean character was not actually the villain. But stories grow as you write them, and characters sometimes develop in strange ways. The dean in Final Mercy turned out to be hiding a psychotic disorder. In any case, this novel’s initial spark lay in the challenges I faced 25 years ago when emergency medicine was a brand new specialty still knocking on the door of the house of medicine. When I first came to the University of Rochester, they were just in the process of creating an academic department and the residency was only a dream. There was some skepticism in the established departments. The frustrations of helping emergency medicine become established here played a role in the idea for this novel. The hospital in the novel bears some resemblance to Strong Memorial Hospital, but it is a fictional hybrid.
RM: Do you use real-life medical incidents in Final Mercy?
There is a good bit of real medicine in the novel, a number of genuine clinical scenes. It is seeded with medical experience. There is an unavoidable temptation to weave in cases that you have dealt with—just change the names and details to protect people. There are a few of these. One of the main characters is the victim of a medical error in the emergency department, a missed diagnosis. The character involved is the previous dean. There is an attempted murder initially described as a suicide. An intern who is not properly supervised makes the error and the dean ends up in a coma. This incident becomes one of the dramatic fulcrums of the story.
RM: How long did you work on the novel?
This novel took about eight years from first draft to publication, which isn’t unusual for a first novel. Most publishers are swamped with manuscripts and aren’t willing to take a chance on a novice. I had previously written about a half-dozen novels that never made it to completion. Much more than half the battle of writing a novel lies in simply not giving up during the times you feel that you’ve lost the thread and things are not working. If you give up too soon, you can walk away from a still viable project. Eventually you learn to treat those roadblocks as challenges. When you figure a way to keep the story going—especially when the turn of events comes as a surprise to you the writer—you know it will be enjoyable to the reader too. You also learn to remember that a rough draft is far from the final product. You must suppress the urge to get it perfect the first time around. As Hemingway said, “All writing is re-writing.”
When you are in the drafting process, feedback from a spouse or friend can be helpful, or it can be the kiss of death. The best feedback comes from another writer who isn’t afraid to be honest with you, and who doesn’t have a vested interest in making you feel good.
RM: What attracted you to writing?
My initial goal was to be a doctor/writer/poet in the William Carlos Williams model. For better or worse, the medicine took a little more control of my life than I’d expected. I fell in love with books very early. I had a bit of a chaotic childhood, my father moving us around a lot, and that social uprooting led to books becoming a sort of touchstone for me, I think, an anchor. My mother was an extremely good storyteller. She could enthrall us with stories about her childhood. Any talent I have, I got from her. I started writing in high school, and my fall back plan if I didn’t get into medical school, was to be an English teacher.
One reason I went in to emergency medicine is the relatively set working schedule. You have long duty hours and then free days. My free days are writing days. If I’m really going strong on a writing project, however, I’ll grab an hour at the hospital or wherever I can. But, generally, I’m more productive if I keep a regular schedule. If I stop for a while, I have to get warm again.
RM: How does the practice of medicine fit with the work of writing?
Being a doctor-writer is a two-way street for me, a reciprocal arrangement. I could not imagine doing just one or the other. I look forward to my writing days. I look forward to my clinical days. But if I go too long without a stretch of writing, I get stale and cranky. It is a creative outlet that is rewarding in its own way. When you nail down a character or a scene or even a good sentence, or come up for an idea for poem, or finish a poem, I find it intensely satisfying.
After 30 years, I enjoy the practice of medicine more than ever. I still see new and puzzling cases all the time, but I know I am not going to be in a box that I can’t get out of or face a problem I can’t somehow deal with. I enjoy a reputation as having a good bedside manner—and I believe that is directly related to my medical school experience at Rochester and the biopsychosocial model we were seeped in. That’s an especially important skill for an emergency physician because we have so little time to forge a bond with our patients. But for me that’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the field. I suppose age has something to do with it too. As your beard turns gray, patients are more willing to trust you.
I truly believe writing would help any physician. Communicating with a patient means giving information tailored to suit the needs of the moment and the individual’s emotional state. Your words must contain the right level of detail, the right vocabulary, and the right sequence, in other words, the right story. Writing helps you develop a greater sensitivity to language and story.
RM: What are you working on now?
I am working on a book of poems that I hope to publish next year. Final Mercy is the first book in what will be a trilogy involving the character Jack Forester, so I am also working on the second book and am outlining the third. The trilogy will follow Jack from being the director of the university emergency department to becoming the dean himself. No likeness to myself intended.
The book is selling OK. I was surprised at the amount of promotion you have to do these days. But getting a first novel published means I’ll have an easier job of selling the second one, or so I hope.
Final Mercy can be purchased online from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or at www.frankjedwards.com.