"Dovetail," a poem by Zoe Mays that appeared in the Spring 2016 Intima is a poetic reflection of a cancer diagnosis. Raw grief with each line is a reminder of patients I met on the medical, neurological, and surgical oncology wards. Mays’ poem reflects what I also captured in my drawing “Forget me not: a visual tale of a head and neck cancer patient.”
“Move back to Missouri and total the Jeep within a month. Run away from the scene”
The poem begins in the setting of Missouri, the state where I spent part of my childhood. A Jeep symbolizes prized possessions that now feel disposable.
“I’m not what you’re looking for, I’m where you lost it.”
Where did the patient lose life, dreams, love, everything? Cancer left a vacuum in its place.
“Watch her run a finger down her jaw and say the word sarcoma”
Sarcoma. The first time I felt anger on the wards this year. A 28-year-old patient fell on his backside and developed a non-healing bruise. At the hospital he received the last diagnosis he expected: “Sir, you have cancer, a sarcoma,” the resident said. “A what?” he replies. “I’m sorry sir, it has spread to your lungs.”
He had three daughters. I cried myself to sleep.
“Did you think all this would make sense?”
Yes. I wish it was a cruel dream; cancer was a savior preceding a graver demise. Then I wake up and cancer is a menace.
“From now on, address your prayers to the old gods, the ones who had sex. They seem reasonable.”
Yes, God, how could you bring this upon someone? The sadness mixes with confusion and results in frustration.
“When it’s helpful, pretend you’re a ghost…In diners pull the stuffing out of ripped booth cushions and pack it in your mouth.”
In the emotional turmoil that ensues, how do you handle those feelings? Disappear like a ghost? Destroy diner property to release the pain? Where is the answer?
The only relief I have found is in drawing. The color of cancer I draw is an amalgam of lethal cells that I could not capture in words. Beauty in a drawing creates a momentary illusion to shield the harshness of reality. The patient in my drawing flowed onto paper when it all finally hit me—the disease was taking his life.
“Did I say this would make sense?”
One day, I hope. Until then, I will let my art make sense of it.
Hena Ahmed is a 4th year student at Harvard Medical School. She is interested in head and neck surgery. In her free time, she enjoys painting, drawing, and sketching.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine