Dr. Selina Mahmood
As a neurology resident at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Dr. Selina Mahmood may have anticipated the demands that come with her career, but she had no way of knowing that the COVID-19 pandemic was coming. Her experience would inspire her to write a book called: “A Pandemic in Residence: Essays from a Detroit Hospital” (available through Amazon and Belt Publishing).
“I started writing essays as an undergrad,” said Mahmood, who went to New York University and the University of Michigan before attending medical school in Pakistan.
Born in Detroit, Mahmood grew up in Bloomfield Hills. “When the pandemic started and I was working on the new COVID floor, I didn’t have an apartment yet, so I was living in Bloomfield Hills with my family and friends, but I ended up in a hotel in Troy that was completely deserted,” she said.
“It feels kind of suffocating in a hotel room. The first weekend, I was one of the only ones there. I felt trapped.”
While her living situation was far from ideal, she could not risk infecting others. Writing would serve as a creative outlet that seemed to suit her. “I would write notes during the day about what was going on and in between those essays there are other essays in the book that are more free-floating thoughts,” said Mahmood.
Still, there is a common thread. “A good essay collection has a narrative that ties things together,” she said. “This one is grounded in my surroundings that include the pandemic, neurology and family integration. I also tried grounding it in a lot of pop culture.”
She is inspired by writers like David Sedaris, Milan Kundera, Virginia Woolf and Kaveh Akbar.
An excerpt from her book that appears in an essay called “Sleep” reveals her distinct voice: “In the patient’s room, banging open curtains, letting sun wash away delirium. Standing still watching the attending examine the patient, a cup dithering on my piriform cusp, waiting it out, it so rarely visits anymore, this deepness of purpose.”
From the time her residency began the summer before the pandemic to its start in March 2020 was like night and day.
“Nobody knew what was going on. It was all so very up in the air,” said Mahmood, whose father is a neurosurgeon. “I was very wrapped up in my own thoughts and my writing took me out into reality in writing and in life as well.”
Her editor told her the main reason for writing is to communicate with others, and Mahmood wanted her essays to resonate with readers from all walks of life. “You don’t want to be vague or abstract,” she said. “But publishing something that’s going on can be tricky because you don’t have hindsight to frame it.”
From a medical standpoint, she found it interesting to see how the world dealt with a novel virus. Though she said the experience was surreal, there were some positive aspects, including community building. “One day I came into work at 6 a.m. and there were people holding posters who were clapping,” she said.
The pandemic also made her closer to her colleagues. As she explained, “The shared experience ended up bonding us together.”
Now the hospital is pretty much back to normal, with a few exceptions, like masks. “When you’re in it, you don’t know how strange it is,” said Mahmood. “When you’re living through it, the strangeness becomes normalized.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow
Photo: Justine Castle Photography