Creative Writing, Clinical Learning

Second-year medical student Eric Tran blends passion for language, medicine, and serving the underserved.

Creative Writing, Clinical Learning click to enlarge Eric Tran, Photo by Max Englund/UNC Health Care

by Zach Read -

As a boy growing up near San Jose, California, Eric Tran was a voracious reader. He made weekly visits to the library with his family to check out as many books as he could carry home.

“All we did was read,” remembers Tran, whose parents and extended family moved to the United States from Vietnam during the Vietnam War. “We wanted to improve our English.”

Although born and raised in California, Tran was in supplementary English as a Second Language classes through seventh grade. It didn’t take long for him to catch up to his classmates, though. After graduating from high school, he attended Stanford University, where he majored in English, and he took enough biology courses to determine that he wanted to become a doctor. But he wasn’t in a hurry to go to medical school immediately after college, and he didn’t want to work at Google or Facebook as, he says, so many of his friends and peers at Stanford did. Instead, he pursued his passion: writing poetry and creative nonfiction.

“Writing is not something I do simply for fun,” he says. “It’s an everyday activity for me. It’s part of my life. So, I wanted to get my MFA.”

Tran had the option of attending creative writing programs closer to home, in the Bay Area, but after spending his entire life around San Francisco, he hungered for a new experience. He selected the MFA program at UNC-Wilmington (UNCW), a three-year, writing-intensive program that provided him time and funding to write.

UNC embraced my interests. The other schools were concerned about how I would respond to not being able to write during medical school.

Initially, he worried that pursuing an MFA would make it difficult to launch future studies in medicine; he’d heard that too long a gap between college and medical school could be problematic for adjusting to the rigors of medical education. He entertained continuing in science courses while writing at UNCW. Ultimately, he decided that he owed the program, which had financially invested in his writing, and himself his full attention to developing his craft.

“It’s rare that you get that opportunity,” he says, “and I felt that I wouldn’t be honoring anyone if I didn’t commit solely to writing.”

As Tran approached the final year of his MFA program, he began applying to medical schools. He was looking for a medical education that included emphasis on the humanities and that provided opportunities to serve underserved populations. At Stanford, he worked with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations through political activism, building of safe spaces, and reduction of health disparities. One of the projects, LGBT Health Stories, interviews LGBT patients and turns their stories into narratives for teaching and advocating.

Eric Tran
Eric Tran at UNC Hospitals presenting his research as part of the John B. Graham Society’s 47th Annual Student Research Day. Photo by Max Englund/UNC Health Care
During the interview process, UNC-Chapel Hill was the only school that expressed interest in his writing and that asked how he envisioned it informing him as a physician.

“UNC embraced my interests,” says Tran, who won the Alan W. Cross Social Medicine Paper Award during his first year in medical school for his paper about adjusting his world views in order to work effectively with religious patients. “The other schools were concerned about how I would respond to not being able to write during medical school.”

Since arriving at UNC, Tran has taken advantage of opportunities to write and engage with humanities perspectives of medicine: his latest published essays and poetry focus on medicine or the medical school experience. He believes that developing alternate ways of thinking about medicine will help him become a better physician.

“Writing, reading, and narratives in medicine are all connected,” he says. “We can’t always meet everyone we want to meet and experience everything we want to experience. Learning about others through reading and writing allows you to develop empathy without experiencing the circumstances yourself. The reason I read and write is because I’m reaching out and touching someone else’s story. When you encounter a patient, when you hold his or her story, you understand it.”

Tran is considering specializing in family medicine or psychiatry, areas of medicine that he believes give him the best opportunity to make a difference in the communities he hopes to serve: LGBT populations, racial minorities, those with low socioeconomic status and the uninsured, and rural populations. As he prepares to specialize, he continues to be part of a medical school research group at Stanford, LGBT Medical Education Research Group (LGBT MERG), and is motivated by studies that have shown that LGBT people fear being discriminated against by their health care providers, that many providers are uncomfortable with LGBT patients, and that many LGBT people are either denied care or don't seek out care for this perceived or real discrimination.

"As both a gay man and a long-standing proponent of social justice, family medicine or psychiatry feel, to me, like the perfect fit," he says. "Working with and for underserved populations is the perfect way to unite many interests and driving forces in my life." 

For Tran, UNC’s commitment to underserved populations provides him with the tools to one day put his training into action.

“UNC is different from other schools in that it has a vested interest in caring for these populations,” he says. “At UNC, they’re not practice populations the way they seem to be at other institutions; these are people with needs who we have to provide care for. It’s not extracurricular for us.” 

The reason I read and write is because I’m reaching out and touching someone else’s story. When you encounter a patient, when you hold his or her story, you understand it.

Despite his varied interests and obligations, Tran continues writing and publishing his essays and poetry. Last year he published a chapbook of poems with Backbone Press, a publisher located in Durham, North Carolina. He notes that creating time to read and write has benefitted him as he’s listened to patient narratives and analyzed patient encounters.

“It has helped me construct a solid argument and explain why I’m taking a step,” he says. “It forces me to think about and decide on the supporting reasons for taking a particular action with a patient. That’s an important tool for physicians.”

Tran understands that it won’t be easy to continue writing as he pursues life as a clinician, but he has plenty of experience making educational and career choices.

“Life forks a lot,” he says. “Initially, for me, it forked at writing and medicine, and thanks to UNC, those forks merged together. It’s going to fork again at research and practicing and research and writing.”

He’s prepared for the possibility of having to adjust his writing schedule again, but he’s not worried about losing the need to write.

“It’s not a hobby for me,” he says. “There was never a question about whether I would write while in medical school. Is there a question about whether someone eats when they go to medical school? They may not eat at the same times they used to, but they do eat or else they won’t make it through.” 

Jenny Shen will begin her final year as a UNC medical student after finishing her MPH.Literature, Medicine, and Culture

For years, the UNC School of Medicine curriculum has emphasized humanities perspectives in medical education with the goal of developing not only better, more well-rounded doctors, but also more complete people. Now, a new interdisciplinary master’s curriculum, Literature, Medicine, and Culture, offers medical students (and others) an opportunity to formalize their training in the humanities, and prepares them for a changing health care landscape. Read more.

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