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‘The Moth’ of Healthcare: Medical Staffers Tell All at Cathartic Storytelling Night

The Nocturnists is an evening of unburdening with healthcare workers who’ve seen it all.


Charles Berman 

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On March 1, 250 people jammed into the Swedish American Hall to hear healthcare workers bare their personal and professional souls.

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Ben Lerman

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Diana Farid

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Anh Nguyen

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Jake Izenberg

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Rupa Marya

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Ben Lerman, an emergency medicine physician, talked about the time that, sleep-deprived, he lubed his gloved finger up for a prostate exam with Thousand Island dressing. Rupa Marya spoke about treating protesters at Standing Rock for rubber-bullet wounds. Diana Farid recited a poem about a patient held captive by her husband.

This isn’t your typical after-work decompressing-over-beers session, but the intention behind it isn’t so dissimilar. The Nocturnists is the brainchild of Emily Silverman, a third-year resident at UCSF, who came up with the idea for a performative unburdening for medical professionals after attending a live recording of The Moth, the themed storytelling series and podcast. The first iteration of the event, in January 2016, drew about 40 people to a living room to hear caregivers talk about the ethical conundrums and personal challenges they face in their professional lives. This March, a fifth event attracted 250 people to the Swedish American Hall.

“I thought this might be a good way to demystify the job of being a doctor,” Silverman says. “There’s a lot of dehumanizing of the physician, even within the medical community. There’s a huge amount of pain and suffering that we’re expected to witness.”

Still, after an evening of cathartic unloading, Silverman wonders about the night’s effect on listeners. “By hearing these stories,” she wonders, “does it make people like their doctors more or less?”

Here, a snapshot of some of the evening’s tales:

Charles Berman, a social worker with Citywide, a program of the UCSF Psychiatry Department, spoke about working with a mentally ill and homeless client to help her get supportive housing. His parting words were a reminder she’d once given him: “Sometimes we get better, and sometimes we get worse, but we’ll always be sick. That’s why you’re here.”

Ben Lerman, an emergency medicine physician in Oakland, recalled his sleep-deprived residency days, when his inhumane schedule would leave him gazing enviously at patients on the operating table, desperate to rest and incapable of empathy.

Family medicine doctor Diana Farid read a poem about a patient—an 18-year-old immigrant who married her middle-aged husband on their first date. Over time, Farid realized her patient was a captive, isolated in a new country without family or friends and constantly monitored by her husband. Farid explained how she’d make up excuses to schedule appointments and checkups. “This poem is dedicated to her and all women like her.”

A nervous first-year med student, Anh Nguyen, a child of Vietnamese immigrants, described an American war veteran she’d treated who, to atone for his war crimes, had deliberately downloaded child pornography so he’d be branded a pariah. He later told her he’d tortured prisoners during the war. “I cried everywhere I went for two weeks,” Nguyen said. “I know the costs of torture. I’ve seen it on my grandparents’ bodies and the way my dad still cringes.”

UCSF psychiatry resident Jake Izenberg described a schizophrenic black man who arrived in his clinic after being released from jail. The man was convinced that the police, the CIA, and the FBI were colluding to imprison him because of his race. In the age of Black Lives Matter, it was hard to dismiss his paranoia. “With every new police killing, I started questioning my reality,” he said.

The evening’s final speaker, UCSF hospitalist Rupa Marya, reflected on the challenges of treating patients who refuse care in protest: the grandmother she saw who’d spent two weeks on a hunger strike protesting police violence in the Mission district, the activists she treated at the North Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Standing Rock. “Police were intentionally aiming at the chests, faces, and groins of these young people,” she said. “There was nobody I could call. The people answering 911 were the same people shooting the guns. This is what war feels like.”


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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