Susan White’s day job as a clinical geneticist sees her hunting for answers to undiagnosed conditions in children. In her writing, Susan aims to take readers inside the medical world (without the boring bits) and her first book, the exceptional YA novel Take the Shot, does just that.
Every day I go to work at the genetics clinic at the Royal Children’s Hospital and listen to patients’ stories. These stories are sometimes hard to hear. They tell of families’ grief, their struggles to accept that something is wrong with their child, and their battle to find out what is wrong. Part of my job is to bear witness to what they have been through, to sit with them while they cry, to acknowledge their suffering and validate their feelings, whether they be anger, sadness, or frustration, and sometimes all of the above. Part of my job is sometimes to challenge them, when I think their child has features of a genetic condition and they show signs of denial. And part of my job, on difficult days, is to break their hearts, when I need to tell them that their child has a genetic condition which might dramatically shorten their life, or cause suffering we can’t fix.
Friends sometimes ask me, ‘How do you do such harrowing work?’ The best answer I can give is that I have authentic conversations about difficult topics in the best way I can, and knowing that I can do that is important to me. And I get to see how parents and children find sometimes remarkable ways to adjust to living with a genetic condition. They remind me about what is really important as we muddle through life. And working with kids, in general, is just great, because no one can take themselves too seriously.
Which brings me to my writing. I write early each morning, before the sun and my children rise for the day, before my medical job fills my brain with infinite to-do lists. I know that writing makes me a better doctor-mother-partner-person. I’m more able to be present and process what happens with the kids in my clinic. Maybe it is a form of therapy, of making sense of the difficult things I witness, but I also know it’s just so much fun for my brain to be imagining and creating. When I write, it feels like a cup is being filled, from which I can drink during the hard days.
Take the Shot is my first novel, about Bug, a basketball-obsessed 14-year-old boy with Marfan syndrome. It is fiction, and not based on any true story, but I have watched plenty of young people struggle to accept an unwanted genetic diagnosis, and have observed coping strategies from denial, to depression and hiding the condition from family and friends. Even though Marfan syndrome is rare, I believe the themes in Take the Shot are universal for teenagers – feeling shame about any way a young person is different from the crowd, hiding those differences, and craving to be included as one of the pack.
To provide some lighter moments, Bug brings his own quirky humorous perspective to the medical world he is forced into, and it was so much fun for me to put him in medical situations and get his unique take on them. I also especially enjoyed writing some pretty annoying medical characters for Bug to meet, having encountered one or two myself in my twenty years of medical practice! (Watch out, doctor friends!)
In reading Take the Shot my hope is that Bug will make you smile, and along the way, he might prompt more conversations about us accepting each other as the gloriously, weirdly unique beings we are.