Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Cathy Ulrich’s fiction piece, The Hollow Where His Heart Would Be
John: One of the things I love about this piece is its clinical and unsparing depiction of the mechanistic aspects of modern medicine. In many ways this approach has been effective, but you do a wonderful job illustrating some of the hidden costs. Why do you suppose such a system has developed?
Cathy: I suppose it is probably to spare the humans behind the medicine! It’s imperfect and sometimes fails, but if people like the surgeon here were to not approach their patients in this mechanistic way, I imagine the cost would be even greater. There is a distance people—especially people in professions like this—have to take to get through the day without having their psyche destroyed.
I’ve always thought that there are certain jobs that exact a severe emotional price. Police officers, for example, often begin to see the world through a lens of criminality and tragedy. Similarly, your protagonist sees everyone around her in surgical terms. Is this just something that we have to accept, one of the costs of doing business?
I would say yes. Right after college, I got a job at the local newspaper. I remember my first night there. The night editor was listening to the police scanner chatter when he suddenly leapt to his feet, pointed at the nearest reporter and shouted in delight, “we’ve got a stabbing!” That was a very surprising thing to me, this little newbie just out of college working my first non-retail or housekeeping job, that someone would be so excited about a stabbing. For him, though, it wasn’t a STABBING. It was NEWS.
“Patient” is an interesting and perhaps inapt word. Should we invent another one? What should it be?
No, because then I’d have to learn a new word and I am terrible at remembering things like that.
The woman that the protagonist operates on feels empty after having a mass removed. Why do we so often cling to the things that are harmful to us?
Because they are there. Because they are something to cling to. Because if we weren’t clinging to them, we would be holding on to nothing at all.
If your hands could resemble an inanimate object, what would you like that object to be?
You don’t know how hard it is not to say “why, gloves, of course.”