Arts and Culture / News

Froude gets PhD in creative writing, prepares for med school

On June 3, Richard Froude will collect his doctoral degree in creative writing from DU.

Days later, the 32-year-old will begin pre-med courses at the University of Colorado-Denver, with hopes that by 2013 he’ll have the science background required for medical school.

The doctoral degree, improbably, is the prologue to what he hopes will be a medical career that harnesses the power of narrative and empathy.

“It’s not that I don’t want to save lives or cure people,” he says, explaining his ambitions. “But what I really want is to be able to alleviate suffering.”

Froude’s interest in medicine grows out of his personal history and a volunteer project he undertook while working on his PhD.

As a teenager growing up in England, Froude contended with serious health issues that made him a frequent visitor to doctors’ offices. He remembers the anxiety that marked his parents’ faces as doctor after doctor attempted to explain Froude’s condition. Finally, he encountered a physician who introduced clarity into the conversation.  

“He was able to tell me what was going on in a way that I could understand,” Froude remembers. That understanding helped him to feel less victimized by his health. “If I could empower patients as that doctor did me, that seemed extremely appealing to me.” 

The idea of medical school began to germinate at that point, but it didn’t mature until Froude was well into his graduate work at DU. In February 2010, he began volunteering at the University of Colorado Hospital (UCH), writing with palliative care patients.

Froude collects life stories, working with patients to craft a “legacy document” that captures biographical data, highlights, favorite anecdotes and conveys messages. For many patients — some of them facing imminent death — the process helps them find shape and meaning in their lives. It also allows them to leave a story behind for their families and for generations of successors not yet born.

As an example, Froude points to his work with a terminally ill man whose partner was expecting their second child. Froude helped him write a letter to the child he would never meet, chronicling his childhood, enumerating his interests and conveying his love.

“It gives patients a sense of value in their lives; it’s calming in a way,” Froude says of the legacy-writing process.

Legacy writing also has added dimension to his own creative work. In January 2011, Froude published Fabric: Preludes to the Last American Book (Horse Less Press), a cross-genre compilation of poetry, essays and musings that explores questions of health and mortality. In CAST, his doctoral dissertation, he writes about Pinocchio and the life-death reality facing the wooden boy who wants to be a real boy. One must die for the other to live, and to understand Pinocchio’s dilemma, Froude pondered the stories he collected during his volunteer work.  

“I have been with people as they have died,” he says. To process the experience, he has put words on the page. “I write about the one thing that will give their deaths meaning: their lives,” he explains in “Seven Things I Am Learning About Dying,” an article published by Slack Lust, a Los Angeles-based online magazine dedicated to cultural investigations.  

Froude has become such a believer in legacy writing that in October 2010, working with physician Stacy Fischer, he shared his experiences and observations at UCH’s palliative care conference. In the course of preparing for the presentation, he learned just how little research exists on the benefits of legacy writing.

To remedy that — and in hopes of maintaining his ties to medical work while he pursues his science classes — Froude has applied for a grant to underwrite a 12- to 24-month literary community service and research project. If funded, the project will enlist third- and fourth-year medical students in an examination of how the legacy-writing experience can improve quality of life in terminally ill patients. Based on his 300 volunteer hours and his consultations with physicians, Froude believes the process helps reduce anxiety and alleviate both physical and psychological symptoms.

Froude won’t know whether he has funding until late summer, but whether or not he secures the grant, he hopes to work toward developing what he calls “a narrative culture” around end-of-life care.

DU’s graduate Commencement ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. June 3 at Magness Arena. For more information or to watch a live stream of the ceremony, visit the DU Commencement website.

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