A Conversation with Physician-Writer Mikkael Sekeres
Celebrating poetry and poets is a longstanding tradition at Northeast Ohio Medical University, which celebrated its 37th annual William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition – a contest that nearly 400 students in medical schools across the country entered this year – with an event April 26. The top three student winners (Sophia Valesca Gorgens from Emory University, Kaveh Danesh from the University of California San Francisco and Nikita Raman from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine) spoke about their winning poems and read selections of their work; and guest physician-writer Mikkael Sekeres, M.D., from the Cleveland Clinic, talked to the group about what writing means to him.
Following the event, second-year College of Medicine student Katherine Wu wrote the following reflection.
For most perfectionist medical students and current physicians, imposter syndrome has crept up in one way or another within our education or clinical work. As a first-year BS/MD student in 2017, it was easy to feel inferior to direct-entry students who had more publications, more connections, more “life experience,” greater professional presence and fewer juvenile impulses than someone like me, who had come to medical school through an accelerated undergraduate program. Although this is a broad generalization of a large group of people, my habits of comparison simultaneously made me feel not enough and too much at the same time.
After the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition last Friday, I talked to Mikkael Sekeres, M.D., a physician-author who has been published in The New York Times and is also the director of the leukemia program and vice chair for clinical research at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute. Dr. Sekeres revealed that even with an impressive career as an author, clinician and researcher, the feeling of being an imposter is not a mystery to him.
Earlier in Dr. Sekeres’s career, a colleague advised that he remove the list of non-academic authorships from his CV because “no one would take him seriously otherwise.” Nowadays, he disregards the disparagement toward writing about his experiences as a physician.
For the young physician, author or physician-author, Dr. Sekeres recommends finding doppelgangers in those career fields. In academia, his double is David Steensma, M.D., who shares an interest in myelodysplastic syndromes and works primarily at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Dr. Sekeres’ best friend is Jay Baruch, M.D., who was the guest speaker at last year’s William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition. (In fact, it was Dr. Baruch who recommended Dr. Sekeres as this year’s guest speaker.) Dr. Sekeres described Dr. Baruch and himself as “two peas in a pod.” Dr. Baruch is more involved and experienced in the writing world as a guest speaker, mentor, and lecturer; but Dr. Sekeres said he has no problem being genuinely supportive of his friend’s career accomplishments.
While in college, Dr. Sekeres took a class comparing the ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He concluded that MLK’s approach to the civil rights movement was to create change within the system, while Malcolm X worked outside of the system. Dr. Sekeres also navigated the infrastructure of existing systems – the publishing and medical worlds— to achieve success.
Dr. Sekeres credits his academic standing and clinical work as having helped his writing garner attention. He advocates this as another possible route for physicians who want to break into the publishing realm.
I have read that people will not open up to writers out of fear that their interactions would be overanalyzed and misinterpreted in publication. So at the end of our conversation, I asked Dr. Sekeres if patients have ever withheld information from him once they realized he was an author. He replied that he has never experienced that situation, because he tries his best to elevate his patients in his writing – another way he demonstrates his gratitude for patients that allow him to know the most intimate parts of their lives.