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Dear gentle readers:

I recently developed a pen-pal sort of relationship with someone – he’s been mentoring me as I perform my writer-in-residence role at the University of Calgary medical school.

Now, this mentor is somewhat unusual.

Is that the right adjective for a pen pal who has been deceased for the past … oh … twenty-four centuries?

Nevertheless, my correspondent is alive and well in the letters below.

I recently presented these epistles to the Family Medicine grand rounds group and the Health Humanities journal club, as part of a presentation on empathy, writing and medicine.  Thanks so much to everyone who provided feedback and suggestions. And thanks to the HH group for such an insightful discussion.

As most of you will know, I am not a physician. I have attended exactly four medical classes and the resulting knowledge is neatly summarized on exactly ten pages of a Staples scribbler.

However, I have done some reading on narrative medicine, and am intrigued by the writerly elements that bind storytelling to medicine.

If you are a physician, please consider the correspondence below as food for thought. Gruel for the clinical soul. I would love to hear your feedback or chat with you over coffee. We could meet at the statue of the stony Greek man in the Health Humanities Center.

Without further ado, then, here are the empathy letters.

All the best,



Dear Hippocrates:


I hate to disturb you, but I was walking past you the other day in the Health Sciences building and as it happened I was thinking about empathy and medicine and writing. And I was overcome with the feeling that you might understand this three-pronged interest. Maybe because I had recently perused some of the Hippocratic writings.

Now, I know that these texts – even, possibly the Oath itself – are likely written not just by you but by several of your like-minded peers, but still, it would seem you had an interest in writing. Didn’t Plato find fault with you for writing things down? So that instead of memorizing a fact, we just set it down on paper, or should I say, chisel it into a stone, relieving us from the responsibility of actually knowing … anything? Although I would argue that the act of writing, for a physician, can open a few doors, but that’s a topic for another letter.