by Len Lear
You never know where story ideas will come from. I happened to pick up a copy of “Philadelphia Stories” in a local store recently. It is a free, quarterly publication, founded in 2004, which is described under the table of contents as “a non-profit literary magazine that publishes the finest literary fiction, poetry and art from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware…”
The first story in the magazine, titled “Worm of the Heart,” by Ilene Raymond Rush, is a compelling, offbeat tale of a woman named Lily Manheim who “accidentally swallowed her giant Schnauzer’s heartworm pill.” Of course my eye was drawn to the second paragraph, which started out: “In the Chestnut Hill house she had once shared with her husband and daughter, Lily worked on hacking it back up.”
I assumed the writer must be a Chestnut Hill resident, but you know what they say about assumptions. (As it turns out, she lives in Elkins Park, although she did once teach at The Word Studio, the now-defunct operation in Chestnut Hill that provided workshops, mentoring and classes for would-be writers.)
So then why did Rush put her character in a Chestnut Hill house? “I’ve always loved Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy,” she explained when I finally tracked her down, thanks to the internet, “although I’ve never lived there. It just seemed like a place that a therapist and her researcher husband might choose to live.”
In the two weeks after I discovered Ilene’s tale in “Philadelphia Stories,” I also saw two lengthy, extremely well-researched and well-written freelance articles that Rush, a diabetic, wrote on medical topics for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The first, on July 13, was about researchers at Jefferson University Hospital testing an innovative treatment for cancer that combines Chinese medicine with a type of psychotherapy. The second, on July 20, was about paralyzed patients who are now able to walk with something called the “ReWalk exoskeleton,” which includes a wearable brace support, a computerized control system and motion sensors on hips and knees.
At this point, I thought that readers should know about this local writer, who is clearly doing some very important work about medical breakthroughs. Following is an interview with Rush, 59, who grew up in Delaware County and graduated from Nether Providence High School, Brandeis University and the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop:
Q: Did you always want to be a writer?
A: Always, since I was a child.
Q: How were you able to break into major national magazines?
A: I was lucky enough to score a New York agent for my first finished story, “Taking A Chance on Jack,” but managed my nonfiction career on my own. I published essays and articles in a wide variety of magazines, including Reader’s Digest, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Weight Watchers, Sesame Street Parents, Cosmopolitan, Redbook and many more.
Q: Did you have many rejection slips along the way?
A: I had my fair share, but gradually they grew fewer as I learned how to craft stories, write with more authority and do research.
Q: How are you handling the diabetes these days? What is your exercise regimen?
A: My diabetes is really under very good control. I exercise an hour a day, either biking or a killer body toning class at the “Y” in Abington. I generally stay away from all breads, pastas and other “white” foods, so if I eat dessert it’s a small piece of dark chocolate or berries. As a result of this regimen, I’ve been able to limit my medications to metformin.
Q: Is it a common phenomenon for a woman to be diagnosed for the first time with diabetes while pregnant, as I read you were?
A: I’m not sure how common it is, but gestational diabetes can be dangerous for mothers and babies. Thankfully, like diabetes, it can be controlled.
Q: Did you begin to write about medical subjects because of your own experiences with diabetes?
A: Not really. For a job I had covering medical research at Temple University, I used to interview doctors and researchers, and found them fascinating. I loved hearing about their work and watching their excitement as they described their projects. Plus, I was on the cutting edge of really new discoveries.
Q: Have you done any teaching in addition to The Word Studio in Chestnut Hill?
A: I taught for about 20 years, starting at the University of Iowa, then Penn State main campus and Temple University. During that time, I taught creative writing, magazine writing and creative nonfiction.
Q: How did you learn about the computerized ReWalk exoskeleton?
A: It was a story I followed for a month or so, as I waited for the FDA to give home approval to the device. It really is an amazingly joyous contraption; it was really inspirational to watch a person in a wheelchair stand and walk with relatively little difficulty.
Q: What was the most memorable story you have ever written?
A: There are probably two: One about my son, who was diagnosed with depression, and another about my friend Paula Barvin, who has ALS.
Q: How did you feel about winning an O’Henry Prize and being nominated for the National Magazine Award?
A: Great. Both awards were for the same story, “Taking a Chance on Jack,” which also won a woman’s writing award in Japan. It was meaningful because it was a story about women, work and love — three issues that are always on my mind.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your family?
A: My husband, Jeff Rush, is the head of the Department of Film and Media Arts at Temple University. I have two sons, Sasha, 29, who will be a professor of computer science at Harvard University, Noah, 22, a musician, and, of course, my not so mini schnauzer, Noodle.
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