Exclusive Interview With Author "Stanley M. Berry"
Stanley M. Berry is a Maternal-Fetal Medicine physician who has provided care to women with high risk pregnancies for 37 years. Although Dr. Berry has authored or co-authored a large number of medical publications, A Fight For Full Disclosure is his debut novel. The author was born and raised in Minnesota, and from age eight, lived in a working class north Minneapolis neighborhood. His professional musician and music teacher father, along with his social worker and university faculty member mother, passed to him a love of music, reading, and a respect for hard work. A major in English literature was his goal as an undergraduate freshman, but after floundering and dropping in and out of college over a four-year period, he read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and like the novel’s protagonist, the author joined an ambulance service in Minneapolis and was trained as an emergency paramedic. He found his calling and was eventually admitted to medical school where he graduated in 1984. He completed an Obstetrics and Gynecology Residency followed by a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Fellowship. Although he refers to himself as a, “failed English major,” Dr. Berry never lost his passion for creative writing or his goal of communicating his ideas about the world of medicine and medical research through the medium of fiction.
Tell us about your new novel.
Before I answer, please accept my sincere thank you to the editors and producers of a Writers Life for allowing me this opportunity to answer your questions about A Fight For Full Disclosure.
My novel tells the story of Carla Williams, the mother of three young children, who is also a popular high school teacher. She undergoes a routine surgery, and things don't go as planned. The hospital must then decide whether to reveal the truth about what happened. Carla's family finds an unlikely ally in Dr. Harold Thompson, Chair of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department. Thompson's quest for the truth results in an attempt to ruin his reputation and end his career as he finds himself in a fight for full disclosure.
Literature actually led you to a career as a physician, can you share that story with us?
I graduated from an all-boys boarding school in northern Vermont with the intention of becoming a "writer." I did my freshman year at Kenyon College, and my plan was to declare English Literature as my major. I transferred for my sophomore year to Macalester College in 1972. In my new, more urban surroundings, I was more interested in the social and political life on and around campus than I was in my academic environment. I dropped in and out of Macalester several times during my remaining six years as an undergraduate. At that point in my life, I had not yet discovered what Mark Twain described as “the other most important day in one's life,” i.e. "why," as in, "Why am I here!" Although I am a huge advocate of liberal arts education, one of the dilemmas I faced was my fatigue and disillusionment with my humanities based study path. During one of my drop out periods, I read Ernest Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms. The protagonist was an ambulance driver in World War I. I was so taken by the story that I called the Hennepin County Ambulance Service in Minneapolis and asked about job opportunities. They had three openings, and I was hired. I received training to become an Emergency Medical Technician. I was captivated by this new form of education, e.g. I learned CPR one day, and literally two days later I was doing CPR on a cardiac arrest patient. I eventually received six additional months of advanced training, and I qualified as an emergency paramedic. In this role I interpreted EKGs, administered cardiac and other drugs, and performed other life saving measures. My educational desires were reinvigorated, and I decided that if I got serious, and disciplined, I could do this - this being becoming a physician. The road was bumpy, but I was eventually accepted at Mayo Medical School. I graduated with an M.D. degree in 1984. After completing my four-year residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I finished a two-year Fellowship in Maternal-Fetal Medicine, a.k.a. High Risk Obstetrics. I've spent my career providing care to women with pregnancy complications, teaching residents and medical students, as well as doing research in fetal physiology along with premature birth and its prevention. Despite this departure from my original intended career plan, I never lost my creative writing itch.
Which authors have inspired you the most?
Ernest Hemingway was a racist, and a sexist. Despite these despicable character flaws, he was a large influence on my writing. I admired his tendency to use short sentences and his way of using subtle, "under the radar" devices to convey important parts of his stories. For me, a great example of this was depicted in The Sun Also Rises when he brought us to an understanding of the emotions of Jake Barnes when the group of gay men entered the bar Jake was sitting in.
I love Toni Morrison's use of simile and historical context to universalize her characters. Her stories sometimes started achingly slowly, but when they grabbed me, it was game over! Tar Baby is a very memorable example of this.
Ralph Ellison is my favorite example of an author who combined the surreal with the real to give the world a complex, multifaceted, unforgettable slice of African American life in the United States. It is regrettable to me that Ellison never completed another novel. I am determined that his fate in this regard does not become mine.
You worked on this book quite a long time, why was it so important for you to get A Fight for Full Disclosure written?
It was important for me to get this story written because it grabbed me and drove me. Although the basic story is loosely based on a situation I faced in my professional life, the characters are fictitious as are major portions of the plot. The core story needed to be told and appreciated because, to this day, many healthcare providers and institutions steadfastly refuse to come clean with patients and families when bad outcomes occur. The creation of this story gave me the opportunity to depict other disturbing professional situations, and some personal and societal issues that I've spent a lot of my life thinking about. Telling the complete story was cathartic for me on several fronts. All of these aspects drove me to focus and finish.
What is the main message you want readers to take away from reading the book?
The main takeaway message I wanted to communicate is that if good people stand up and speak up, they can stop bad people from doing bad things. I also want people to understand that there are sometimes heavy personal costs to those who take on the role of the gadfly. Lastly, I wanted to show that the personal sacrifice that sometimes accompanies speaking out can be very worth it.
You've been a physician for 37 years. Have you experienced firsthand situations like those in your book?
Absolutely YES! The situations I wrote about are pages torn out of my professional life scrapbook. I've witnessed firsthand, many times, misbehaving physicians who were allowed to continue their offensive, and sometimes dangerous, conduct without any repercussions. I have also been privy to physicians who were medically incompetent, and no one was willing to intervene. I will say that hospitals and other healthcare organizations are getting better at meaningfully confronting these issues, but our society has a very long way to go toward properly addressing these problems. In my career, two women who were under my care died. These experiences stay with me, and will be with me, for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I have frequently witnessed physicians fail to adequately interact with, explain, and console patients and families when bad outcomes occur. I briefly addressed this latter phenomenon in the book. The cliché is, "Write about what you know," and that's what I did.
What surprised you the most about writing this novel?
How long it took me to finish! Although I worked full-time throughout the writing of the novel, I never dreamed it would take me 12 years to finish. Other surprises included the following: The small number of friends who read the manuscripts I sent them despite the fact that they frequently asked me, "...how's the book going?" Of the 27 manuscripts I sent out, only eight people read the book, and only three of those readers gave me helpful critiques. My outline for the novel was 45 pages long and very detailed, therefore, I was quite surprised by the number of plot changes I wound up making in an effort to build “dramatic curiosity” without giving away the finale. In the end, the surprises I encountered were all part of the absolute joy of writing the book.
What can we expect next from you? Have you started your journey towards book number two?
The journey toward my next novel has started, but it's very nascent. I intend to write about the consequences of people turning a blind eye toward unethical behavior. There are hundreds of examples for me to explore from physicians who practice substandard and dangerous medicine but are allowed to continue unchecked to police officers who constantly use excessive force and are allowed to continue undisciplined until someone is unjustifiably killed. I’m eager to get going full bore on this project, and as an extra push, I’ve been warned by some of my older readers that they want to read my second book and, therefore, it can’t take me 12 years to complete.
For more information on Dr. Berry and A Fight for Full Disclosure, please visit https://stanleymberry.com/
A DEPARTMENT HEAD FIGHTS THE HOSPITAL FO.R. FULL DISCLOSURE ABOUT THE EVENTS THAT LED TO THE DEATH OF CARLA WILLIAMS AFTER A ROUTINE SURGERY.
Carla Williams, a mother of three and popular high school teacher, undergoes a routine surgery which does not go as planned. Department Chair, Harold Thompson, becomes an unlikely ally when he vows to find and share the truth about what happened to Carla. Thompson reassures Carla’s distraught physician as he becomes convinced that the surgeon did nothing wrong. Despite the hospital’s pledge of transparency, once the requisite investigation is completed, Thompson’s efforts to keep his word collide with the institution’s traditions of secrecy and finger-pointing. The Department Chair’s quest to reveal the truth results in accusations of unprofessional conduct, and he is targeted by the hospital’s power brokers who move to revoke his hospital privileges and fire him. What began as a fight for full disclosure also becomes a fight for Thompson’s career and his reputation.