Richard Selzer says he's lucky to have had two careers, one in surgery and the other in writing.
"It's quite unusual for a surgeon to become a writer, a literary figure. It hasn't happened very often in the history of medicine," the retired New Haven, Conn., physician and author said in an interview.Selzer, who was to speak today at the annual meeting of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters at Westminster Col-lege, is a retired general surgeon. He was at Yale University School of Medicine for many years.
He was a surgeon for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1986 at age 57. But he had already published a couple of books, "Rituals of Surgery" and "Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery."
Only a few of Selzer's early writings aren't about medicine. Most were drawn from his professional career, and one of his books is based on his own near-death experience.
"In 1991 I returned from a three-week lecture tour and fell into a coma without any warning. I hadn't been ill. It lasted 23 days. I had been given up for dead," after being in a hospital intensive care unit for 23 days.
The physician, who had contracted Legionnaire's disease, said he was unconscious and on a respirator all that time. At the end of the 23 days he awoke unexpectedly and began a long period of recovery that lasted most of the rest of 1991.
"So I decided to write a book about it," Selzer said. "Raising the Dead: A Doctor's Encounter with His Own Mortality" is his account of an acute pneumonia that rendered him comatose and on a ventilator. He said the account is not a religious experience.
When Selzer began to write at age 40 (he is now nearly 70), he was probably the only surgeon who was endeavoring to become established as a literary writer.
"I proceeded to do that because I had an internal need to write. When it came time for me to retire from surgery, my new life as a writer had already been somewhat established," he said.
In his early writing, Selzer's subject as a writer was his work as a doctor. So the two, writing and surgery, "cross-fertilized" each other.
"But in recent years I have wandered rather far afield in my writing. Now I write about painting and sculpture, and short stories have nothing to do with medicine . . .," he said.
In his writings, Selzer says he doesn't aim for wide readership. But "over the years I have accumulated loyal readership. . . . Each year the readership gets a little bigger. I don't have any great ambitions. I just write down what is there waiting to come out. Whether anyone wants to read it or not, that is not something that I worry about. I don't write for the market at all. I write for myself."
Selzer's writing career began in the 1970s with "Rituals . . . ," his first collection of short stories. Since then he has written several other books, including "Confessions of a Knife," a collection of 24 essays, roughly half of which are surgical memoirs; "Imagine a Woman"; "A Mile and a Half of Ink"; and "Taking the World in for Repairs."
His ninth book, "The Doctor Stories," a collection of short stories, will be published by St. Martin Press, New York City, in August. In addition to practicing and teaching surgery, Selzer also taught writing at Yale. He has received dozens of awards and honors, including a National Magazine Award, an American Medical Writer's Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.