Entries for the City Press Tafelberg Nonfiction Award are now open. Avantika Seeth caught up with the inaugural winner, Maria Phalime, who penned the true story Postmortem: the Doctor Who Walker Away. Phalime has since gone on to become a highly sought-after motivational speaker and life coach.
Your true story, published in 2014, about why you walked away from the medical profession, seems to still speak volumes to the state of affairs within the healthcare system in the country. How do you think your book has helped to guide or shape the state of healthcare in our country from a medical professional’s point of view?
My story served to shine a light on an issue that had been festering under the surface for a long time – the impact of our healthcare system on the people who work in it. After the book was published, I was approached by many doctors thanking me for finally bringing this topic out into the open. Although there are still pockets of resistance to my message, the book has certainly helped to draw attention to burnout in the medical profession and has helped to catalyse action around issues such as safe working hours for doctors. There is still a long way to go, but the conversation has begun and progress is being made.
How did your time as a medical professional help to set you up for a life outside of the industry?
Medical training is specific to the practice of medicine, so when I left clinical practice I had to build my professional life from scratch. It’s been a long and challenging journey, but I have no regrets.
Your book tackles the reasons you left, but there are many young medical professionals who would fight tooth and nail to be where you were. How do you feel about this?
At first I felt guilty about leaving such a sought-after profession, but I’ve come to realise that there is little point staying in an unhealthy situation. Writing Postmortem has enabled me to give back to the profession by highlighting the challenges that exist within it, and this has made the challenges I faced and the decision I made worthwhile.
In what ways did winning the award in 2012 help to boost your profile? You have gone on to become a well-respected public speaker, is this as a result of winning the award?
Winning the award raised my profile in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve been invited to speak on numerous platforms, not only on the issues that affect the healthcare sector, but also on topics related to the power of sharing our stories, career choices, thriving in the workplace and other issues. Through the power of the internet my story has reached medical professionals all over the world and many have been in contact to share their own challenges with me. I now also coach doctors and other professionals, a path which was made possible by the profile generated through winning the award.
How did you feel after you had won, considering it was your first book and that your story had been selected?
I was elated! The year I spent writing the book was an adventure that enabled me to finally come to terms with the premature end of my medical career.
What was the process like when you were selected the winner? How manageable was it to work with an entire publishing team, with the likes of an editor for example?
I had a lot to learn and a limited time in which to do so. I enjoyed the process, and I’m grateful to all the people who contributed to the book and helped to make it the success it has been.
What has the process of writing and being an award-winning author taught you about yourself?
I’ve learnt that I can do anything I set my mind to. After writing Postmortem I also wrote a novel for teens, which won the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award. I’ve also learnt that the obstacles we face in life can serve us, provided we are willing to learn from them and apply those lessons as we move forward.
How do you feel the local publishing industry fares when it comes to giving nonfiction authors a platform to tell their stories? Do you think that there can be improvements?
I feel that there is considerable support for nonfiction authors. In recent years we’ve seen quite a number of books that speak to the key issues that affect us as a country, such as gender-based violence, corruption and HIV/Aids.
What has been some of the positive feedback that you received after you were able to tell your very personal and emotionally taxing story?
When I was writing Postmortem I was concerned that there would be a backlash from the medical fraternity, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. My story has helped people to realise that the challenges they face aren’t theirs alone. The book has also resonated with people outside the medical profession; people in professions such as law and teaching face similar challenges in terms of burnout.
Would you be interested in writing a book on your current journey?
My current journey is about building on what I have learnt through my challenges in medicine and using those insights to help others. I’d be interested in writing a book to help professionals to thrive in the workplace.
Your story was not an easy one to tell, you sacrificed a lot. What was the process of writing it all down like?
It was a difficult process, but a necessary one. Putting pen to paper and reflecting on my experiences helped to bring a new perspective to what I went through, and it was cathartic in many ways. That healing has helped me to reconnect with the medical profession and to continue to contribute to it.
What would be your advice to other writers?
Be true to yourself and your story; you never know whose life you may be changing. There is power in sharing our stories.
What are your future plans when it comes to writing? Can we expect another book?
Postmortem was a story whose time had come. I felt compelled to write it not only to bring closure to my own journey, but also to bring attention to the issues that continue to plague the health sector. The next book will come when it’s ready to be written.
To submit entries for this year’s award, go to http://nb.co.za/Citypress