What’s the Story #42

For nearly a half-dozen years in the 1980s, I carried a beeper, wore blue surgical scrubs and soared through the night in Learjets while immersing myself in the world of organ transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh for a book I was writing. I rounded the wards with these men (and a few women), scrubbed with them and observed dozens (if not hundreds) of liver, heart, lung, pancreas, and kidney transplants.

This was in the early days of organ transplantation, and the surgeons were like members of a cult: They lived and breathed their work, and couldn’t see much beyond the lifesaving miracles they were attempting to perform. Surgeries could go on for 10 or 12 hours, usually at night, and during the day, the surgeons saw patients recovering from surgery or awaiting transplants.

One surgeon stood out, not only because he was one of the most skilled surgeons at the center, but also because he voiced doubts about the long-range usefulness of what they were doing.  An organ transplant could save a life—this was true—but it could also cost up to $1,000,000 (and that’s in 1985 dollars). And there was no guarantee of long-term success; at the time, only about six of every 10 patients survived a year past liver transplant surgery.

“Just think,” this surgeon once said to me, “how much long-term good we could do if we would take this money and target it to the prevention of liver disease.” At the time, this was an unpopular position to take—it still is, to a certain extent—and the surgeon eventually left Pittsburgh for Nebraska, where he started his own program, which became very successful. After my book Many Sleepless Nights was published, I went on to other projects, and he and I lost touch—until a couple of months ago.

For this issue, Creative Nonfiction cosponsored a national competition with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, for the best essay related to the theme of “The Night.” We received almost 350 submissions, which our readers screened down to a more manageable bunch for our judge, Susan Orlean, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Orchid Thief and other books. She selected the first-prize essay, winner of $5,000—My Night with Ellen Hutchinson. I was astounded and delighted when I saw the essay, which is about an unsuccessful liver transplant operation in the middle 1980s and a young surgeon who suffers the sadness, futility and emptiness that come with the experience of losing his patient. I was even more delighted to see the name of the winning writer: Byers “Bud” Shaw, the same guy who as a young surgeon spoke with such clarity about his field.

This issue also contains two other award-winning essays: Minh Nguyen’s Suffering Self, which won the 2010 Norman Mailer College Nonfiction Writing Award, and S.L. Dunning’s for(e)closure, the winner of Creative Nonfiction’s MFA Program-Off. To round out the Essays section, we also have new work by Jenny Davis and Casey Clabough.

In the rest of the magazine, there’s an Encounter with Susan Orlean, who spoke with me earlier this year about balancing parenthood with writing and about her recent teaching experiences; a Then & Now piece about Samuel Pepys’ resurrection through social media; a Pushing the Boundaries essay by Paul West, which imagines the interior monologue of Hermann Fegelein, the details of whose presumed execution in the last days of Hitler’s command are lost to history; and a special cnfonline column by “Sugar,” whose weekly advice column is a highlight of TheRumpus.net. Finally, our regular columnist Phillip Lopate and I each grapple with the importance of facts, essential aspects of creative nonfiction that are too frequently neglected in the attempt to create dramatic narrative. The word creative often gets too much attention while the word nonfiction becomes an afterthought—which, it seems to me, is shortsighted, to say the least.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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