Chasing Zebras: A Memoir of Genetics, Mental Health and Writing
November 23, 2021
300 pages | ISBN 978-1-989496-41-1
When Margaret Nowaczyk immigrated to Canada with her family from Poland she was determined to be Canadian, whatever that meant, and she was equally determined to be a doctor. Arriving as a teen with an English vocabulary deeply influenced by the few English books she had, including Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil, Margaret made her way through medical school at the University of Toronto, followed by residencies at Toronto's SickKids until she settled in at McMaster University Hospital as a clinical geneticist. From leaving Communist Poland to enduring the demands of medical school, through living with a long undiagnosed mental illness to discovering the fascinating field of genetics, plunging into the pressures of prenatal diagnosis and finally finding the tools of writing and of narrative medicine, Margaret shares a journey that is both inspiring and harrowing. This is a story of constant effort, of growth, of tragedy and of triumph, and most of all, of the importance of openness. In the end, Dr. Nowaczyk invites us all to see that "life is precious and fragile and wondrous and full of mistakes." And to keep trying.
“As a geneticist, Dr. Nowaczyk is ever alert for trouble – suspecting, diagnosing, often confirming the worst for families. As a writer, Margaret imagines the yet-to-be-visible, creating landscapes of profound emotion and risky truths for herself and her readers. Here is a physician who has answered the call to a perilous narrative life in the face of patients’ illnesses and her own. To tell and to write, in the end, is to see, however costly might be that sight. How fortunate are her patients and their families for her insight. How indebted is our field of narrative medicine to receive this moving testimony of the powers of shared creativity in our medicine and in our lives.” – Dr. Rita Charon, Narrative Medicine, Columbia University
“As a geneticist, Margaret Nowaczyk has seen ‘the enduring misery of the human condition.’ But as a writer, she has turned that misery into pure art. Chasing Zebras is a brilliant testimony to the healing power of words.” – Wayne Grady, author of The Good Father
“Chasing Zebras is a must-read book. Nowaczyk is a master storyteller, weaving strands of her personal and professional life to give enthralling testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and what it means to be human. From her immigration to Canada from Poland as a teen to her fierce determination to succeed academically and become a doctor, Nowaczyk’s strength shines through like a beacon. But the shadowed darkness of mental illness also follows her, despite being a well-respected geneticist with a loving husband and two sons. Nowaczyk does not shy away from her struggle with mental illness and recovery. Insightful, honest, vulnerable and intriguing this book captured my heart as well as mind.” – Rowan McCandless, author of Persephone’s Children
“Every medical person will identify with her doubts and stages of training. Every immigrant or refugee will recognize themselves on her journey. Margaret’s honesty endears, passion inspires and intensity compels. She explores the world of the clinical geneticist and reveals the kinds of discoveries that she and the families she serves have experienced as the field matured. Complexity is not avoided and the zebra stripes provide a metaphor for the many as yet unanswered questions that are part of living life as fully as possible. You will find yourself better ‘able to acknowledge life’s uncertainties.’” – Dr. Judith G. Hall, OC, professor emerita of Pediatrics and Medical Genetics, UBC
McMaster geneticist details work with rare diseases in children in memoir ‘Chasing Zebras’ (Annette Hamm, CHCH, 07/01/2022)
An interview with Margaret about her memoir.
Medicine and Memoir: An Interview with Margaret Nowaczyk (All Lit Up, 08/12/2021)
In this interview, Margaret talks to All Lit Up about finding her way to an MFA program and why writing makes her a better physician.
Read the Hammer, Fall 2021 (Hamilton Review of Books, 30/11/2021)
A short interview with Margaret about her memoir, her favourite local bookstore, and how Hamilton influences her writing.
McMaster scientist writes memoir on her quarter-century in clinical genetics (McMaster Health Sciences News, 18/11/2021)
A lovely write up about Margaret's memoir.
About the Author
Born in Poland, Margaret Nowaczyk is a pediatric clinical geneticist and a professor at McMaster University and DeGroote School of Medicine. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Canadian, Polish and American literary magazines and anthologies. She lives in Hamilton, ON, with her husband and two sons.