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Pulse Fiction

Former physician Tess Gerritsen has turned from novels of the heart to heart-stopping medical thrillers.

Photo: Sigrid Estrada

THRILLMEISTER, M.D.: Gerritsen's best-sellers reveal the inner workings of the medical world.

By Yvonne Daley

It all started when one of Tess Gerritsen's cardiac patients handed her a bag of well-thumbed Harlequin romance novels. Gerritsen, a Honolulu physician, was working 16-hour days. The woman thought the stories might ease the stress. By the time she finished the books, Gerritsen was hooked on the genre's steamy melodrama--and on the idea that she could write one herself.

Turns out she was right. After a few false starts--she spent nights and weekends writing two "practice novels"--Gerritsen, '75, sold Call After Midnight to Harlequin in 1986. She went on to produce another eight popular romance novels, roughly a book a year.

The stories, Gerritsen says, are "the products of a very active imagination and strict compliance to the formula: a happy ending for a heterosexual couple who struggle against evil and end up with each other despite almost overwhelming odds." She adds quickly, "My own life has been much more ordinary."

Well, not exactly. The doctor-turned-author overcame some pretty extraordinary odds by switching careers and breaking into the tiny club of successful romance novelists. Her publishing success allowed her to cut back on her internist's practice and eventually concentrate full time on writing and raising her two sons. In 1990, she and her husband, physician Jacob Gerritsen, moved the family from Honolulu to Camden, Maine, a picturesque town of 5,000.

Gerritsen's real literary breakthrough came in 1995 when--urged by her agent--she decided to take advantage of her background to write a medical thriller. It was, she says, a chance to reach a bigger audience, deal with more substantial issues--and make a lot more money.

Now she's addicted to the genre, and her new readers seem to be hooked on her. Harvest was a 1996 New York Times bestseller and is scheduled to be made into a movie by Paramount Pictures next year. The rights to her newest thriller, Life Support, have already been sold for a TV miniseries. Her work has become so engrossing and lucrative that her husband recently quit his job as an internist to help manage her career and care for the couple's children, Adam, 15, and Joshua, 13.

Like lawyer-writers John Grisham and Scott Turow, Gerritsen uses inside knowledge of an insular profession to lend her books authenticity. She believes her years as a romance novelist give her an edge over others working the thriller vein. "I'm trying to get beyond plot and into who these people are, what matters to them, and what they're afraid of losing."

As a romance novelist, the author never had to deal with enraged medical professionals. But with the publication of Harvest, the story of a black market in human organs, Gerritsen found herself under attack by the American Assoiation of Transplant Coordinators. The group blasted the book's storyline, asked for a rewrite of the paperback and lobbied Paramount not to produce a movie version. The association even objected to the use of the word "harvest," the term used in the transplant industry to describe organ removal. Gerritsen has little patience for such sensitivities. "People read medical thrillers because they want to know the inside story," she says.

She also dismisses the idea that her book might somehow reduce the number of organ donors. By dramatizing the shortage of organs, she says, her readers are more likely to become donors.

Life Support treads on even more controversial ground. The book was inspired by the real-life story of a woman who became pregnant with the intention of having an abortion and donating the fetal brain tissue to her father, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease. "I didn't want to get involved in the whole abortion issue," she says. "But there was something about how far we would go to prolong life that I wanted to explore."

Aside from the occasional controversies and obligatory book tours, Gerritsen now lives the quiet life of a hard-working writer. She pens her first drafts in longhand at the dining-room table, working from notes she scribbles to herself on little pieces of paper. The plot of a book reveals itself as she goes along. "It's a mystery to me, too--except the science," she says. "And that I research long before I start writing."

Gerritsen says she hasn't regretted leaving medicine, although she sometimes misses the interaction with colleagues and patients.

She is under contract to write two more medical thrillers. After that, who knows? Someone might just hand her a brand-new bag.

Yvonne Daley, a former fellow in the Knight journalism program, writes and teaches in California and Vermont.

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