The Language of Medicine:

Jennifer Culkin ’79

“I loved the language of medicine from the first, and I still love it—the precision of it, the way it gives shape to chaos,” writes Jennifer Culkin ’79 RN BSN CCRN, in “Ichthyosis,” a moving essay about caring for a terminally-ill newborn shortly after receiving her nursing degree from Russell Sage College.


Language and medicine are inseparable for Culkin, a neonatal, pediatric and adult critical care nurse whose career has included emergency helicopter and fixed-wing transport, and an award-winning writer, whose work has been honored by The Atlantic and published in Stories with Grace, The Jack Straw Writers Anthology 2006, The Georgia Review and Utne Reader.


At work on a collection of essays based on her nursing experiences, Culkin explains that her writing captures “the physical and technical realities of, say, my RN partner and I resuscitating a 46-year-old father of four in a helicopter at 1500 feet of altitude, 40 minutes out from the receiving hospital. But it also explores what I think of as understory—how I think about what I do, how my patients infiltrate and affect me, often many years after I care for them.”


“I was attracted to clinical nursing because the ‘people factor’ makes it unpredictable. I have to adapt and apply science minute by minute, to each unique situation,” said
Culkin, adding that the adrenaline rush of emergency nursing is also present for her in the act of writing. “In writing, the exhilaration comes from nailing it on the page.”


Culkin, who lives in Bainbridge Island, Wash., with her husband and two young adult sons, will graduate from Pacific Lutheran University’s MFA Creative Writing program in August (Like The Sage Colleges, PLU is a member of the Associated New American Colleges, a respected group of 23 colleges that combine the best aspects of the liberal arts college, the research university and the land grant university.)


“When you care for people year-in and year-out in such high-tech, high-intensity environments, care so intimately for people who have one foot out over the abyss, you develop a certain perspective that you can explore and share with writing,” she said. “For me, the MFA program has been about process: writing nearly every day, learning the craft, beginning to make good on my potential as a writer.”


Hear Culkin read "Ichthyosis" online at KUOW, Seattle's NPR affiliate.