Surgeon, professor, novelist: It’s a lofty trio of career choices, each particularly demanding in its own way. Certain pairings among the three do fit together rather well — plenty of professors have written a novel or two, and certainly plenty of surgeons are also professors — but it’s a rare individual that looks at those three choices and says, “Yeah, sure, I’ll take ‘em all.”
That’s exactly what Perelman School of Medicine graduate J. Kellogg “Kelly” Parsons, MD’97, MHS, has done. Currently a surgeon and professor of Urology at the Moores UC San Diego Cancer Center, Parsons is also a published novelist, having released two medical thrillers, Doing Harm (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) and Under the Knife (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
The path that led Parsons to this point is a somewhat indirect one, and its roots lie in grade school, where Parsons said he started writing creatively long before he ever had an interest in going into medicine. But while it may have been the earliest manifestation of what would eventually be a career, creative writing took a bit of a backseat in college as Parsons started writing more non-fiction to fulfill the requirements of his history major — and then came his interest in medicine.
“I was interested in medicine as a career before I was interested in writing as a secondary career,” Parsons said. “It was during college that I got interested in going into medicine, and that’s when I made the decision to go to medical school.”
It was the physical and emotional intensity of training that eventually brought writing back into the fold for Parsons, who said his way of processing the rigors of being a surgical intern at a large inner city teaching hospital was writing things down, keeping informal notes in a journal.
“That was something familiar that I fell back on, that helped get me through that challenging period of my life and to emotionally process everything I was experiencing,” Parsons said.
It was only after the completion of his residency and beginning of his fellowship, both of which he completed at Johns Hopkins, that Parsons, in reviewing his notes and journals, realized he wanted to write a book.
Initially, Parsons said, he had no plan to actually become a published novelist. That was back in 2003. Seven years later, he’d picked up an agent — and two years after that, in 2012, he and his agent sold his first book, Doing Harm, to St. Martin’s Press. For Parsons, it was the beginning of writing as a secondary career. His second book, Under the Knife, was released in February.
While on the surface the careers of novelist and physician seem as if they occupy two entirely different realms, Parsons said something he’s figured out over time is that physicians are trained storytellers.
“One of the first things we teach our medical students is how to perform the history of the present illness,” he explained. “To fashion a narrative as to why the patient is feeling poorly, and to use that narrative to communicate with other physicians. It is a skill fundamental to the practice of medicine.”
That’s not the only way in which the various interests intertwine: According to Parsons, his ability to write about complicated subject matter in a way that’s digestible for the lay reader is informed by his experience both in talking with his patients and teaching medical students.
Similarly, Parsons has found that exploring his creative side through writing allows for him to relax the part of his brain tasked with the rigors of medical practice — one interest, providing respite for the others.
“When I think about medicine all day long, by the end of the day I’m intellectually exhausted and I’m unable to think about medicine at all,” he said. “But I find that if I then switch off that medical part of my brain, and turn on the creative writing part, it’s relatively fresh. I can then flex and work the creative writing part for a while, then go back to the medical part. One helps the other by taking over and giving the other a rest.”
Because of that balance, Parsons admitted he doesn’t think he’d be more productive as a writer if he were doing that full-time instead of on the side. For him, writing doesn’t necessitate creating a Salinger-esque hermitage: It’s about finding the time when you can, or making the time to write when you have to. He’ll write early in the morning, late at night, on weekends, on vacation. He said he goes everywhere with his laptop, and is continuously turning things over in his head or writing them down.
Parsons said he’s received fan mail throughout the medical field and been contacted by surgical societies to talk about being a writer, and he attributes some of that fascination to the fact that creativity winds its way through many aspects of medicine in some obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
“In surgery, I’m constantly problem-solving,” he said. “The practice of surgery demands creativity. You often have to develop new approaches to doing things. Surgical problem solving is based on creativity. I think surgeons and other physicians are extremely creative folks. I just don’t think they always realize or appreciate it, because creative problem solving is a part of what physicians do every single day.”
One of the questions most frequently asked of Parsons is how he finds the time to get everything done — and the answer, maybe predictably, is passion. Being good at any one of the three choices of surgeon, professor, and novelist requires a significant investment of time and energy, and the only way to make that work is through being dedicated enough to each one.
“If you do have the love and determination for it, you just have to do it,” Parsons said. “You just have to put aside time.”