Silverman speaks onstage
Emily Silverman onstage at a Nocturnist event around the theme of "Wonder" at the Shelton Theater in San Francisco, September 2016

Q&A: Setting the stage for doctors to tell it like it really is

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Name: Emily Silverman
Age: 29
City: San Francisco
Position: Third-year resident in internal medicine at UCSF

J.: Early last year, you founded The Nocturnists, a storytelling project similar to The Moth but for doctors. The Nocturnists started as a blog, with written reflections on interns’ experiences. Now, doctors and others are telling their stories on stage at public events in San Francisco. What was your motivation for the project?

Emily Silverman: I wanted to create a venue for [medical school] residents to share their stories. I thought it would be fun in a beautiful way, and a chance to exercise our artistic muscles. It started out as a crude hunch, but when I got positive feedback, it was clear I had tapped into a latent hunger for narrative in the health care community.

A nocturnist is a hospital-based physician who works overnight. How did you choose the name for the project?

It evokes nighttime, or mystery or a sense of uncovering things that are normally covered or hidden.

Silverman smiles next to a bright piece of artwork
Emily Silverman

Legally, the doctor-patient relationship is confidential. What are the ethical considerations of telling stories about interactions with patients?

In some instances, the doctors ask patients to sign releases. When that’s not possible, the storyteller changes all details so individual patients are not recognizable. Also, I’m not interested in stories where the storyteller is absent. I want personal stories from the doctors that involve their own vulnerability or transformation.

What larger purpose does this storytelling serve?

Storytelling is the currency of medicine. When you go to the doctor, you come in with your narrative, and it is our job to make medical meaning of that story. However, for us it is a data-centered reductionist practice, one where we strip away personal details and leave behind an objective core. The Nocturnists provides a time when physicians can practice a different type of storytelling, one that rewards color and humor and personality.

And they want to do that?

Physicians’ writing has exploded. Plus, there is evidence that reflective writing can help medical students develop empathy, so perhaps oral storytelling can help doctors, maybe even reduce burnout and depression, which are at epidemic levels.

You were brought up Jewish in Miami, went to a Jewish day school, had a bat mitzvah and were confirmed. What role does faith play in your life or work today?

In college, I decided I was an atheist, but since becoming a resident who has seen suffering and hardship, I have come to appreciate the importance of community and social support, and religion is one way that people connect. Lately I’ve been thinking about Judaism as a form of community, even if it’s just inviting friends over for Shabbat dinner, and making sure people turn off their phones to protect that time.

To date The Nocturnists has held five events, with about 50 medical professionals taking to the stage so far. Talk a bit about the first one, held in January 2016.

I found a Victorian home with a large living room, and rented the space for $90. Then I twisted arms to get people to stand up and share their stories. A handful of residents and a couple of faculty members took part. We didn’t have much in the way of rehearsal, but it was an electric night, organic and very emotional.

Any events coming up?

Our next one is June 10 at PianoFight in San Francisco, a fundraiser for TEACH, a local nonprofit supporting women’s reproductive health.

The events often sell out. One held in March at the Swedish American Hall drew an audience of over 250. You say 15 to 20 percent of your audience members are lay people. What is the draw for them?

Lay people like stories about doctors — think about all the popular medical TV shows. The stories are interesting because health care is so personal, yet so foreign.

Also, medical stories humanize physicians and help demystify what it means to be a doctor.

Since you were young, you have been interested in and curious about science and you also have an artistic bent. With The Nocturnists, you have found an intersection between the two. What’s next?

At some point I would like to create a podcast. I have recorded every live event, and two of the stories have aired on KALW, but right now the podcast has taken a back seat. After some time off, in September I will go to work at San Francisco General Hospital, an environment ripe for storytelling. I am looking forward to seeing where The Nocturnists goes.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.