Anthony Chin-Quee AB '05 is a board certified Otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose, and Throat surgeon) with degrees from Harvard University and Emory University School of Medicine. He has appeared at The Moth competitions, where he’s won their Story Slam, placed as a runner-up in the Detroit Grand Slam, and performed on the NYC Moth Mainstage. He was a medical consultant for ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and a member of the writing staff of FOX’s The Resident for two seasons, distilling complex medical and social issues into palatable and understandable mainstream storylines. His critically acclaimed memoir, I Can’t Save You—a candid account of the ways in which medical residency training shattered the mind of an empathetic, well-intentioned doctor, and the arduous task of piecing it back together again through painful and overdue self-discovery—was released by Riverhead Books on April 4th, 2023. He has published opinions in Forbes and been interviewed by NPR on the topic of systemic racism in medical education. Anthony currently resides in England with his wife and daughter.
Q: Your memoir I CAN’T SAVE YOU was released on April 4th, 2023. Can you explain where the idea for writing this memoir came from originally, and what pushed you to follow through with it?
I actually remember the exact moment that the idea came to me. I was in the middle of a devastating episode of major depression during medical training: I couldn’t work, funds were running low, and I was on the losing side of a daily argument with a voice in my head that kept telling me that speed limits were light suggestions and seatbelts were annoying and ineffective. So, to summarize: I was doing great.
Then one night in bed, the anti-depressants finally started to kick in, the fog in my mind burned off, and I realized I needed to find a reason to keep going. Not just to keep living, but to keep doing this work that seemed to be killing me every day. And suddenly I remembered: I was really good at telling stories. Since I was young, I’d always loved building them, and people always seemed to gravitate toward them. It was a skill and a love that I thought had been beaten out of me by my job, but it somehow managed to find me on a night when I’d run out of things to hold on to.
There was no lofty societal inspiration. Just the hope that through the promise of storytelling I’d survive. And the distant wish that someday someone might read it and feel a little less lonely.
As far as what pushed me to follow through? Well we’ve only recently gotten curious enough as a society to learn that ‘hero’ doctors have limits and breaking points–all it took was a worldwide pandemic, a doubling of their already insane work-hours, working under the constant threat of dying from an incurable disease, and skyrocketing suicide statistics. Super low bar for humanizing the medical profession, right? But we can’t let the moment vanish just because the stories are no longer in the news. Our stories of survival and sacrifice have always been this dire. And if we have any hope of changing the profession for the better, the time to strike is now.
Q: What lessons do you hope readers take away from your story? What did you really try to focus on communicating or highlighting for your audience as you were writing?
I’d like for readers to know that it’s okay if you’ve spent minutes of, years of, or your entire life feeling like something inside of you is broken or irredeemable. That feeling need not guide you, and it doesn’t have to last forever. The choice to love yourself, your entire self and all of the paths you’ve walked is one you can make any time. There’s no magic to it. It’s just a choice. And lots of affirmations. And a lifetime of work. But once you commit to that choice, there’s no love like it in the world.
Q: This memoir addresses some deeply personal struggles and challenges you’ve faced in terms of racism, mental health, and being in the medical field. Were you at all nervous about sharing such personal material, and was there anything you felt you had to hold back?
My main challenge in writing this story wasn’t nerves or anxiety about sharing, but managing to share completely. I realized, as I made my way through my first draft, that many experiences and emotions that I thought I’d navigated completely still required much more work in therapy. Honesty came easy, but the act of gaining enough perspective and self-awareness to tell a story of growth, forgiveness and self-love took a lot of intentionally uncomfortable work.
Q: What was the process like for getting your memoir published? Did you have any challenges finding an agent or publisher?
I knew absolutely nothing about the publishing world when this journey began. I didn’t have any connections or any personal fame or notoriety, so I was really at the mercy of what Google could teach me about “how to publish a book." All I knew was that I had to go on the hunt for a literary agent. So, I put together a snappy query letter (which I based on templates I found on the internet), and sent out cold emails to dozens of agents. And then I got the rejections. Dozens of them. It wasn’t until about eleven months had gone by, and I’d been rejected by about sixty agents, that one took an enthusiastic chance on me. And luckily, it was a match made in heaven. My agent, Jon Michael Darga, has become both a great friend and a fierce professional advocate. Once I signed with him, he worked tirelessly to get me set up at the right publishing house for my book.
Q: In writing this, did you find that any of your ideas or preconceptions shifted as you explored your past and history in the medical field as a Black man? Or did the feelings and thoughts that you’ve had all along sort of just crystalize more clearly?
When I began writing, I’d already gone through several phases in the evolution of my identity as a Black man—not only in medicine but in America and, really, in the world at large. The fun part was figuring out creative and poignant ways to articulate that journey. I had a feeling that there were many people out there who would relate to having a long and often uncomfortable journey through their understanding of their own racial identities, and I wanted to make sure I honored those experiences with as much clarity and empathy as I could manage.
Q: Ultimately, are you glad that you went into medicine? Is there anything about your career that you regret? And what have you done throughout your career that you’re most proud of?
Even though, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t do it again, I wouldn’t know all that I know now if I hadn’t gone through it. So, I don’t regret any part of my medical career. Plus, it was the experience that I gained in the journey through medicine that made my entry into my new career possible. I love utilizing all that I’ve learned about both life and medicine in a way that more closely aligns with the things I’m passionate about.
Medicine-wise, the thing I’m most proud of is the way in which I’ve tried to identify others who were struggling through the profession, and help them to find confidence, community, and the freedom to be themselves. The journey, for many of us, is relentlessly dehumanizing. We lose so much of ourselves along the way, and we’re conditioned by our job to believe that we are alone in these feelings. But we’re not. And we all deserve to know that.
Q: There unfortunately still remains a stigma surrounding discussion of mental health, especially in communities of color. How does your memoir seek to address this challenge, and does any of your other work (as a TV writer) encompass that discussion? Have you seen any changes in this stigma with the pandemic and increased awareness/conversation surrounding mental health while everyone was in quarantine?
The stigma you mentioned is still very prominent, even with the increased spotlight mental health has received over the course of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the onus has remained on the individual to recognize when they need help themselves, as opposed to restructuring our systems and workplaces to be more hospitable and supportive of our collective mental health and wellness.
So, given the fact that much of society has decided that we are ‘on our own’, it was really important to me to depict my experience of depression honestly and completely. I focused on painting as clear a picture of how the world felt both inside and outside of my head as my brain slowly crumbled. I wanted to show as many sides of the illness as possible—from the catatonic depths to the hilarious highs to the alcohol drenched hazy moments in between—so that readers who suffer (and loved ones of those readers) could recognize just how many faces this deceptive disease can take on. If we can recognize more of our individual triggers and warning signs, we might stand a chance at taking control of our mental wellness before we get to that dangerous point of no return.
Q: You were a story editor for the hit medical TV drama THE RESIDENT. How do you take your experiences in the medical field and use them in your work as a writer on the show?
I love the medium of television, because it’s an opportunity to educate on a very large scale, especially when it comes to medical dramas. As we crafted each episode, we’d often begin with a theme we wanted to explore. And these themes were often tied into broader medical/healthcare issues that we knew to be important to large groups of people. Then we’d use our stories as opportunities to teach the audience about how to advocate for their own health without getting didactic and preachy. One of my favorite episodes to write was about obesity bias in medicine, and how healthcare providers can miss vital diagnoses when we are preoccupied with a patient’s weight. I think we were able to empower a lot of people with that story, as well as demand that we as providers address our blind spots of bias.
Q: What was the process like for sitting down to write a memoir versus writing for television? Any surprising differences or similarities in the mediums?
The processes are extremely different! Memoir writing was a largely solitary pursuit, demanding that I create deadlines in my head as motivation to keep plugging away. Writing for TV is a total group effort. You have a whole room full of smart, creative writers who are always ready to throw new ideas into the mix. Writer’s block isn’t really a thing when working in television, since much of the process is creation by committee. When I hit a wall with the memoir, the work just stopped indefinitely! No more words until I’d taken a break/eaten a snack/gone on vacation!
Q: In what ways did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?
One of the best things I learned while at Harvard was that I didn’t need to feel that my life path was limited by the paths that had already existed in the world around me. I’ve never been around a group of people (before or since college) who so freely believed that they could create the career, life and world that they wanted, even if it hadn’t existed before. It’s super cocky for sure, and can lead you to be somewhat reckless, but the sliver of that hubris that I managed to adopt freed me to leap from the well-trodden medical path into the unknown. And for that, I’m eternally grateful to the Harvard community.
Q: Finally, what do you like to do in your free time?
I love laughing and being silly with my wife and daughter! And when it comes to down time, I read lots of books (YA sci-fi/fantasy is my fave), play video games, and watch an enormous amount of TV (a bit of an occupational requirement).