It’s easy to see how Pam Belluck slipped into the tight-knit Nantucket community that provides the marrow of her book, “Island Practice.” A woman of many interests and talents, Belluck is open, engaging, and free with anecdotes. Her book is no different.
“Island Practice,” just out in paperback, reads in such a conversational, intimate way that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Belluck is an island native — or at least was familiar with the place before she started writing. In fact, she had only been once, for one day, and she had never heard of the island’s doctor before one particular assignment for the New York Times in 2007.
A unique prompt led to a unique story: The national editor for the Times challenged her to find (in her own words) “somebody in the region who hasn’t been written about, who’s doing something interesting in an interesting place.” Before settling on Dr. Timothy Lepore (pronounced LEH-pree), Belluck investigated several eccentric stories, including a “nude bowling place in Bangor, Maine” and a man interested in making Vermont into its own country.
Belluck says that juxtapositions characterized her initial perception of the surgeon. “You get this impression of the island,” she says, “it has a particular feeling … it’s architecturally standardized. Lepore’s office is just like that from the outside.” On the inside, however, the office is “crazy,” full of stuffed animals, guns, and “other strange things.” Far from ignoring the more idiosyncratic side of the Nantucket doctor, Belluck felt it was necessary for her book to illustrate both facets of Lepore’s character. The author contends that the story would be less interesting if it weren’t for the surgeon’s eccentricities: “One of my main criteria for any story … is that there has to be something counterintuitive, something surprising.” Lepore’s hobbies and interests add that dimension.
The doctor is, however, more than just a quirky story. Belluck’s book strongly conveys his seemingly encyclopedic medical knowledge, his strength as a medical practitioner, and his commitment to his patients. Lepore is the Medical Director and the Chief of Surgery at the Nantucket College Hospital – but his credentials don’t end there. He is also a national expert in Lyme Disease, a malady that plagues the small island of Nantucket as well as much of “America” (as Nantucket natives call the mainland.) He is the school physician as well as the doctor of the football team, and, as Belluck’s book describes in one particularly hairy section about a horse, occasional animal clinician.
Lepore and his wife, Cathy, are also deeply involved with issues of mental health, alcoholism, and drug use on the island. Although sections of “Island Practice” make it seem as if Lepore can and will try areas of medicine unfamiliar to him (the book at one point details his foray into brachioplasty, a surgical procedure that removes under-arm jiggle), the book also conveys the doctor’s caution and readiness to forgo procedures if he thinks the patient would be better served off-island.
As soon as the Times published her original article, Belluck says she received calls for book deals. After researching the topic for an additional eight or nine months and continually unearthing new anecdotes, she was sold. For her, the book accomplishes a rare achievement: “It has [maintained] my interest for many years. The story, world, and characters are interesting on an individual level and also on a national level: they represent individuality and the spirit of independence in this country.”
Belluck is no stranger to the medical theme of “Island Practice.” In 2007, she won a Knight Fellowship to spend a year studying science journalism at MIT and Harvard. Two years later she became a health and science writer for the Times. Belluck began working in Boston as the New England bureau chief in 2001, a region that her predecessor warned her would be “sleepy.”
“Sleepy” is hardly the way to describe the stories Belluck covered during her time in Boston. She recalls most strongly the introduction of same-sex marriage, the Massachusetts law requiring universal health care, and several “really fun and quirky” stories, including one about the lake with the longest name: Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. “I had so much fun with that story,” Belluck laughs. “I had initially heard that the name meant ‘you fish on your side, I fish on mine, no one fishes in the middle. But it turns out it doesn’t actually mean that. It’s an apocryphal story.”
For Belluck, journalism has two scopes: a “panoramic” and a “telephoto” lens. A ‘panoramic’ story is one with national significance, such as the introduction of same-sex marriage. Belluck’s piece on Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg represents a ‘telephoto’ viewpoint—“just a delightful, local thing.” Sometimes, however, you come across a story that has the rare ability to bridge both spectra. “Island Practice,” with its intimate stories and overarching dialogue on health care, is one such story.
In addition to her literary talents, Belluck is a jazz composer and flautist. She performs both original compositions and covers. Her jazz group, Equilibrium, plays frequently in New York City. Belluck has appeared in book-and-jazz evenings called “Island Jazz,” which combine performances with discussions about “Island Practice,” writing, and journalism. They’ve taken place at Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village and all along the East Coast.
Here's one from a Massachusetts event:
She'll be doing another at Arno's on Nantucket at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 21 in conversation with Lepore and in performance with the Matthew Hutchinson Trio.Imagine TV and 20th Century Fox TV optioned “Island Practice” for a television drama last fall. Amy Holden Jones will write and executive produce the series, while Lepore will serve as consultant. “Doc Martin,” set in Cornwall, England, was a big hit for the Brits. Belluck makes the case that Lepore and Nantucket could be just as quirky and dramatic on American TV.
This program aired on August 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.