Carrying the black bag


Full House by Phil Houseal


About eight years ago I was invited to be a guest at a writer’s group.

As they discussed and critiqued each other’s writing, I was drawn into the process. For the first time I felt that I, too, could get a book into print.

(I did, too. It’s called “Finding Fredericksburg: A self-guided tour of historic Fredericksburg, Texas.” Shameless plug below.)

One of the writers in that group, Tom Hutton, was a retired neurologist working on his first “non-technical” book.

Unlike the rest of us, he had a real publisher.

Last year, Texas Tech University Press published “Carrying the Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales.”

It is a compilation of stories distilled from his 30-plus years of practice in West Texas and Minnesota. Part memoir and part tribute to his patients, the book describes his patients’ courage, grace, dignity, resilience, and yes, humor, when facing major medical conditions.

Writing is not a new passion for Hutton, who had already published eight professional books and over 100 articles. But in those works, he had never used a simile or metaphor and “never written a line of dialogue in my life.”

“Writing is something I’ve toyed with for some time now,” he said. “I loved literature in college, but was always so busy I couldn’t write much except for medical science journals.”

Other than occasionally trying to sneak a “rhetorical flourish” into his work, he didn’t dabble in non-technical writing until the end of his professional career, when he penned caregiver’s guides for family members dealing with Alzheimer patients. It was a change from writing technical articles “crammed with lots of turgid science facts.”

“I found myself writing for patients and practical things, rather than theoretical topics,” said Hutton, who admitted it was a challenge to change styles. “I had to get rid of the passive voice.”

The desire to become an author rather than a writer stayed with him. When he entered the transition from work to retirement, Hutton started taking writing classes, including some at Hill Country University Center. Along with several classmates, he formed a weekly writers group, the one I eventually visited. Just as they helped me, they helped him.

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