Psychiatrist, novelist, musician, and playwright – all these describe the many talents of Heather Folsom, whose devotion to the arts and medicine has permeated her life's work.
The 1981 UC Davis alumna is a practicing psychiatrist of child, adult and family therapy in Albany, Calif., and is also the author of three books.
"Philosophie Thinly Clothed," is a collection of short stories or "moral tales" with complex meaning. "Hypohypothesis" is a novel in which Folsom draws upon her expertise and experience as a practicing psychiatrist to integrate an original theory of the human mind into an engaging tale. And her latest novel, "Romance of Romance," examines romance from three different perspectives.
"For me, the combination of writing and psychiatry is a perfect one," she says. "Part of what is most moving to me about psychiatry is getting to know people at a level of deep truth, and I'm very privileged to learn about what their lives, feelings and emotions are really like. Then I have the opportunity to use this experience of learning about people and connecting it to expression through my writing."
Degree in filmmaking
Her interest in the arts first surfaced as a young child, playing for hours outdoors in the Connecticut woods taking in the beauty of nature, and then searching for ways to share that beauty with others.
She was devoted to her music lessons and "read like a fiend," often expressing her thoughts in plays and short stories.
After a year as an undergraduate at UC Davis, she went on to UCLA to graduate with a bachelor's degree in theater arts and filmmaking.
Six years of various jobs in the Bay Area followed, including working in film and sound recording and as a professional musician – mostly rock and roll – with some blues, jazz, country and soul mixed in. There was also time to write some short stories.
But through the years, she always felt the lingering memory of her younger brother, who at age 16 was diagnosed with schizophrenia and later committed suicide when he was only 22. That experience motivated her to become a physician.
"That experience was devastating for our family and really affected me," she says. "I wanted to learn more about psychiatry because he suffered so terribly and I wanted to help anyone I could who might find themselves in the same situation. He died so young and suffered so much. I knew I had to change my path in life to help people with psychiatric problems."
Switching to medicine
After two years of pre-medical studies at UC Berkeley and her first year of medical school at Yale University, Folsom transferred to the UC Davis School of Medicine.
"I'll always be very grateful to Dr. Lois O'Grady, who was dean of student affairs at the time, for getting me in, as I was one of the oldest in my class," she says.
She remembers fondly the psychiatry research she conducted with psychiatrist John Battista, and "one of the most fascinating and instructive electives" during her studies was trauma surgery with surgeon F. William Blaisdell, a founding father of modern trauma surgery, who was "a brilliant teacher and made you love medicine."
Folsom completed her residency in psychiatry at San Mateo County Hospital, at UC Davis, working on the "N-1" ward at the hospital, and at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Martinez. She also completed a fellowship in child psychiatry at Napa State Hospital and Children's Hospital in Oakland.
After her fellowship, she worked for nine years as medical director of the East Bay Agency for Children in Fremont, a psychiatric day treatment program for kindergarten to sixth graders on a public school site. She also supervised psychology interns in the adolescent medicine department at Children's Hospital and taught a yearly course in family therapy at Napa State Hospital.
Writing a constant
All the while, she kept her hand in the arts by writing short stories and a short play, "Blue Hats," performed at UC Berkeley. She also collaborated with actor and writer Neil Marcus on "My Sexual History," performed at the San Francisco Fringe Festival.
When she met publisher Jeffrey Miller of Cadmus Editions, who liked her short stories, he persuaded her to move to Petaluma for six months to focus on completing her first book. She loved Petaluma so much that she made it her home, now living in an old brick building that was once a barn, with Cadmus and a print shop located downstairs from her residence.
"It's a perfect place for a writer, sharing a building with a printer and a publisher," she says. "I live in what was once the library, surrounded by books. I call it ‘deep bohemia.'"
She's already working on her fourth book, another novel, which she hopes to publish in 2010.
Her years at UC Davis provided not only the academic and scientific background she was searching for, but "a humanistic component" that is critical to her practice of psychiatry as well as to her writing, Folsom says.
"This many years out of school, as time passes I appreciate my education at UC Davis more and more," she says. "I'm so privileged that in helping people through my psychiatric work I have been taught so much by my mentors and by my patients. Human beings are so complicated that it never gets dull or routine. It's always challenging and fascinating."