Honoring the Messengers of Grief: Thinking deeply about what haunts us by poet and nurse practitioner Katherine Seluja, ARNP

I’m sorry to admit that during my own healthcare training, I was taught to carefully guard my feelings, to remain composed and “professional.” The thought of hugging a patient was considered too personal, too involved. Now, decades into my career, I have most definitely put that advice aside.

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Swimming Alone: Thoughts on What It’s Like Being a Medical Student Thrown Into the Proverbial Deep End of the Hospital Wards by Thomas J. Doyle, MD

Thomas J. Doyle MD is an internist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. His Field Notes essay " To Pronounce " appeared in the Spring 2018  Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Thomas J. Doyle MD is an internist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. His Field Notes essay "To Pronounce" appeared in the Spring 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

I can’t recall the first time I performed a death pronouncement. I’m sure I was taught how to diagnose death, but I can’t summon to mind much in the way of specifics. My recollections are vague, often from nights on call as a student or intern tagging along with senior residents as they performed death pronouncements on the wards.

On the other hand I can immediately summon to mind many other experiences from the pressure cooker of medical training. I can visualize the frothy trachea of an enormous man in respiratory failure whom I successfully intubated during a rotation in the ICU. I still cringe recalling ribs cracking under my palms as I performed CPR on a frail elderly man. I pushed rapidly on his sternum and recoiled internally even as I knew my technique was correct, recalling an attending’s advice that “sometimes you need to break some ribs for a good cardiopulmonary massage.”

I feel a personal sense of loss that I didn’t write down the emotional impact of my early experiences in learning to diagnose death. My essay “To Pronounce” is an attempt to make up for that loss.

And it is with that sense of loss in mind that I applaud William Fyfe for his essay “No Time For Tears Today,” published in the Fall 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine under ‘Field Notes.’ In concise, immediate, elegant prose, he captures the essence of what it’s like to be a medical student thrown into the proverbial deep end of the hospital wards. Many of Fyfe’s words resonate with my memories of training: “chaos,” “imposter,” “sheepish,” “drained,” “ashamed,” “unexpected.”

In particular, his essay captures an unspoken lesson students are expected to absorb while keeping their heads above water – that in medicine we are expected to swim because – well, because that’s just what we have to do.

Fyfe’s prose, however, hints at the emotional isolation that can creep into our lives in medicine very early on, and locates the reader squarely in the proverbial moment when we may momentarily “get it together” to confidently function with humanity.

I like to think that Fyfe’s title is intended to convey a touch of irony because, after all, a decent amount of the reason there are so many among us who become numb or burned out is because we can’t, or don’t, let ourselves have time for tears at least once in a while.


Thomas J. Doyle MD is an internist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He graduated from The Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University in 2003 and completed training in internal medicine at Rhode Island Hospital. He practices inpatient hospital medicine at Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, MA. His Field Notes essay "To Pronounce" appeared in the Spring 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

A Death Is Not Closure: How Poems Can Help Bring Clarity to Our Loss by Alida Rol

Alida Rol practiced as an OBGYN physician for many years. She holds an MFA in writing from Pacific University. Her poem " After A Year in Hospitals"  appears in the Spring 2018  Intima.

Alida Rol practiced as an OBGYN physician for many years. She holds an MFA in writing from Pacific University. Her poem "After A Year in Hospitals" appears in the Spring 2018 Intima.

In her poem, “Writing Elegies Like Robert Hass”(Fall 2015 Intima), Jenny Qi wrestles eloquently with the death of her mother. She hooked me with the title, and she does American poet Robert Hass, who served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997, proud. This is not a sugarcoated remembrance but a wry and thoughtful, grateful and pained elegy. I assume the speaker is Qi herself.

She layers nuanced and conflicted emotions, recalling her mother’s bad habits, like scratching “bug bites until they bled,” being “petulant and stubborn,” or driving “too fast,” but also the traits that made her so endearing: She was “so greedy for living, so hasty with love.” Qi wants to remember her mother’s generous and genuine qualities, but then in the chilling final stanza recounts the burden she still carries over how her mother died. The poem transitions seamlessly between all the unsorted, colliding feelings, before it leaves us with a closing heartbreak.

For years, I tried to write poems about my brother’s death. Over time I found the memories slipped away yet, paradoxically, a clearer picture of him began to emerge. I wrote about discovering who he was in the poem, “After A Year in Hospitals,” aware that we, the living, may perhaps be reinventing the persons who can no longer speak for themselves. Although, in this poem, I did not include my own misgivings over the way my brother died, I relate very strongly to the way Qi vividly describes her torment over her mother’s last moments.

Description alone cannot do her poem justice. It needs to be read in its entirety to experience the impact. Reading Qi’s poem reminds me that poetry has the power to evoke, through concrete images and masterfully chosen words, an empathic emotional state.


Alida Rol practiced as an OBGYN physician for many years. She holds an MFA in writing from Pacific University. Her poems and essays have won several awards and have appeared in Rhino, Passager, The Examined Life, Nasty Women Poets Anthology, and Hektoen International, among others. She lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her poem, "After a Year in Hospitals" appears in the Spring 2018 Intima.

 

 

Poetry and String Theory: How Each Brings the Macro and Micro Together to Heal by Ingrid Andersson

Ingrid Andersson is a full-time midwife and poet in Madison, WI. She is completing her first collection of poetry, entitled  Down the Female Ages . Her poem "At The Green Burial Informational Luncheon" appeared in the Spring 2018  Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Ingrid Andersson is a full-time midwife and poet in Madison, WI. She is completing her first collection of poetry, entitled Down the Female Ages. Her poem "At The Green Burial Informational Luncheon" appeared in the Spring 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

The Irish poet Eamon Grennan said, “I think poets are string theorists in some ways. They are trying to bring the macro and the micro constantly into a single focus.”

Few experiences focus human life and practice more, than advanced illness or the impending death of a family member. Susan Sample's poem "Indigo" (Intima, Spring 2014) succeeds in capturing the weight and span of such an experience. 

It begins in water, on a raft, with a rowed backstroke, the strong pull in the poet's chest alone beneath pale clouds and looming cliffs, cut through with dark swaths / of coal. Then, it moves to the marbled linoleum undercurrent of a hospital floor, worn through / on the threshold of patient rooms, and a dark lung mass on the X-ray of the poet's friend, the iced absence of breast another swath. Onward, in the less silent chemo suite, we're surrounded by everyday tragedies of pic lines, Hickmans and ports, and the poet's father's slow drip, as it clicks like an aperture set for a long exposure: / one sleeve of his favorite fleece rolled up. The cobalt blue of his sleeve colors the poem, as does the weighted blue of the bowl / he ate cereal from as a boy that I found on the shelf / of his apartment this morning.

Amidst the poem's heaviness, a thread runs through it like a hope, pulling and holding together body and earth, deep grief and sunlight, the particular and the universal. It runs dark and inexorable, like water, like veins through rock, like an intravenous line into a loved one. But it also runs like the sky blue yarn joining a hundred tiny squares in a quilt that a nurse pulls for the poet's father from a woven basket.

Like Susan Sample, I too write poems from life looking into the uncharted fathoms of aging parents. How do we, who strive enough every day to help strangers through pain, disintegration and dying, attend to our own ill and aging without drowning, without growing dangerously benumbed or isolated?

Poetry answers this question in its revelation of patterns, of countless connecting threads, in its refusal to disregard the details of every day and its insistence on homing them in whole people, families, culture and nature. Poetry is a healing practice, because it is a homing practice. My poem "At the Green Burial Informational Luncheon" (Intima, Spring 2018) aims to bring home the death of my mother.


Ingrid Andersson is a full-time midwife and poet in Madison, WI. She is completing her first collection of poetry, entitled, Down the Female Ages. Her writing has appeared in The Progressive magazine, About Place journal, Midwest Review and Wisconsin Poets' Calendar. Her poem "At the Green Burial Informational Luncheon" appeared in the Spring 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

I Lost a Patient Last Week by Carolyn Welch

Carolyn Welch worked for many years as a pediatric intensive care nurse and currently works as a family nurse practitioner.  She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.  Her poetry collection, The Garden of Fragile Being, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.  Her poem  "Relapse " is in the Spring 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

Carolyn Welch worked for many years as a pediatric intensive care nurse and currently works as a family nurse practitioner.  She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.  Her poetry collection, The Garden of Fragile Being, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.  Her poem "Relapse" is in the Spring 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

I lost a patient last week. This is not unexpected in the world of family practice. I have lost countless patients.  During most of my career in pediatric intensive care, however, I lost them dramatically. They departed with fight and drama, chest compressions and epinephrine, and intensity. This patient left quietly, succumbing to congestive heart failure.  He came in every week or two with waterlogged ankles and lungs when he forgot to take his meds.  He missed his wife. He lingered to talk. His going was like the tide shifting in Ron Lands' poem “Listen to the Ocean.” Some other shore was calling him.

There are moments when we notice the breath is like the ocean rising and falling or like Lands' “moonlight floating on the water.” My own daughter’s battle with schizophrenia is teaching me the tending of good days, the collecting of moments.

Last summer, as I watered the garden, a hummingbird flew close, dipped in and out of the spray—his thirst and my offering meeting there on a hot uneventful day in July. Diana calls on good days between relapses. Lands' patient or father or mother labors to breathe until reminded of the light and the water.  Waves bring what they have and take what they find.  Lands' voice eases his listener from one moment to the next.

My patient’s death leaves a gap in the schedule, an unfilled prescription, a message from his son. And we go on. This smallness of death is part of its tragedy to those of us working close to it, but also when it visits our lives. The room get cleaned, the bills arrive, the dogs whimper for their supper.  Some of us write poems in an effort to translate our experience and to tend to these moments of being.


Carolyn Welch worked for many years as a pediatric intensive care nurse and currently works as a family nurse practitioner.  She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.  Carolyn’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, Sundog, Tar River Poetry, Conduit, Connecticut River Review, High Desert Journal, The Southeast Review, Zone 3, The Minnesota Review, American Journal of Nursing and other literary journals. Her poetry collection, The Garden of Fragile Being, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.  Her poem "Relapse" is in the Spring 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

 

 

Life and Death in the ER: What's Real, What's Fiction? by Carol Scott Connor

Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Her story  "After Midnight"  is homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Her story "After Midnight" is homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Readers of my piece "After Midnight" often ask me, “What happened to the cop?”

I answer, “It’s fiction. There never was any cop.” But the truth is more complex than that.

There were patients very similar to this during my medical school and residency years. From those memories I can say with confidence that although the piece ends with the cop about to arrive, alive, in the Recovery room, he almost certainly would not have survived to leave the hospital. As subsequent decades passed, we became more facile in resuscitation, better attuned to the factors that predict a successful outcome. In that time, at that place, we simply did everything we could to fight for life.

As you may have guessed, the piece is firmly rooted in my own experience as a wide-eyed medical student. Originally destined for a career in the cerebral specialty of cardiology, I became a convert to surgery after a night when the team (at least temporarily) cheated death and everything seemed possible. When the swoosh of the dark wings of death could be heard, and we seemed to be able to beat that old carrion-bird back into the darkness. And the night ended with a trip across the roof to start rounds.

A far more realistic and nuanced view is presented by Anna Belc in “Getting to Know Dying.” She writes of the early recognition of imminent death in those who are in the zone of criticality. She speaks of anticipating death so as to better be able to prevent it – for example, for a patient at risk of bleeding out, start two large-bore IV’s.

She also speaks of the difficulty preparing the survivors, the family. And, implicit in all of this, is the personal toll on the healthcare team. Those who deliberately choose to work in the zone where life and death intersect are, indeed, very special people.


Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She writes memoir in the form of fiction, exploring the world of women in surgery. Her stories have been published in multiple literary journals ranging from “The Healing Muse” through “North Dakota Quarterly,” and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A collection of her short stories was published as “A Few Small Moments.” She is past editor-in-chief of “The Examined Life Journal: A Literary Journal of the Carver College of Medicine” and currently serves as its fiction editor. "After Midnight" is homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Life and Death in the ER: What's Real and What's Fiction? by Carol EH Scott-Conner MD PhD

Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Her story  "After Midnight"  pays homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Her story "After Midnight" pays homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Readers of my piece "After Midnight" often ask me, “What happened to the cop?”

I answer, “It’s fiction. There never was any cop.” But the truth is more complex than that.

There were patients very similar to this during my medical school and residency years. From those memories I can say with confidence that although the piece ends with the cop about to arrive, alive, in the Recovery room, he almost certainly would not have survived to leave the hospital. As subsequent decades passed, we became more facile in resuscitation, better attuned to the factors that predict a successful outcome. In that time, at that place, we simply did everything we could to fight for life.

As you may have guessed, the piece is firmly rooted in my own experience as a wide-eyed medical student. Originally destined for a career in the cerebral specialty of cardiology, I became a convert to surgery after a night when the team (at least temporarily) cheated death and everything seemed possible. When the swoosh of the dark wings of death could be heard, and we seemed to be able to beat that old carrion-bird back into the darkness. And the night ended with a trip across the roof to start rounds.

A far more realistic and nuanced view is presented by Anna Belc in “Getting to Know Dying.” She writes of the early recognition of imminent death in those who are in the zone of criticality. She speaks of anticipating death so as to better be able to prevent it – for example, for a patient at risk of bleeding out, start two large-bore IV’s.

She also speaks of the difficulty preparing the survivors, the family. And, implicit in all of this, is the personal toll on the healthcare team. Those who deliberately choose to work in the zone where life and death intersect are, indeed, very special people.


Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She writes memoir in the form of fiction, exploring the world of women in surgery. Her stories have been published in multiple literary journals ranging from “The Healing Muse” through “North Dakota Quarterly,” and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A collection of her short stories was published as “A Few Small Moments.” She is past editor-in-chief of “The Examined Life Journal: A Literary Journal of the Carver College of Medicine” and currently serves as its fiction editor. "After Midnight" is homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Thoughts on Poetry, On Dying by Mikki Aronoff

In my pre-poet life using creative arts therapies with adult and pediatric cancer patients, and later, with family and friends, I was honored to attend many “good” deaths. My personal debt to hospice caregivers became immeasurable – the support they give to the dying and to survivors, how they taught me to carve my own grief.

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Dinner, Revelations and Narrative Medicine: Tales told by Intima Spring 2017 by poet Wendy French

This is a blog about Intima and narrative medicine in general and all that we can read and absorb from this excellent online journal. Every issue grabs my attention for the poetry, articles and the blogs that respond to other people’s work.  

Wendy French is a poet, whose latest collection of poems is "Thinks Itself A Hawk" (Hippocrates, 2016). Her collaboration with Jane Kirwan resulted in the book "Born in the NHS" (Hippocrates, 2013). She won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prize for the NHS section in 2010 and was awarded second prize in 2011. She has worked for the past twenty years in healthcare settings. Her poem " Exchange " appears in the Spring 2017 Intima.

Wendy French is a poet, whose latest collection of poems is "Thinks Itself A Hawk" (Hippocrates, 2016). Her collaboration with Jane Kirwan resulted in the book "Born in the NHS" (Hippocrates, 2013). She won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prize for the NHS section in 2010 and was awarded second prize in 2011. She has worked for the past twenty years in healthcare settings. Her poem "Exchange" appears in the Spring 2017 Intima.

My poem "Exchange" was written after my son came home from working in the Far East. He brought with him a girlfriend who had also been working with him for the British Council. Poom was Thai. We had never met before and they arrived in the evening. She was exhausted from the long flight. I had prepared a meal and over supper, a nurturing and nourishing time and good time to talk with new and old friends. She told me that her father had died and she was still very sad.  We had candles on the table but we lit another one for her father and placed it in an important position near the flowers that seem to symbolize new growth, new seasons. 

Then Poom started to tell us that she had had Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a syndrome I had never heard of. But as she told us her story another narrative emerged, the emotional need to now pass on the story. This for me is what narrative medicine is all about. It’s telling our stories to a health professional who can understand what is going on for us emotionally, intellectually and physically. Poom felt, at this supper in a country she didn’t know, not long after her father’s death and this dreadful illness, that she needed to talk about it and try and rid the experience from her mind in a strange country. This was her narrative being told right now.  

I was very struck by the wisdom in Vivian Lam’s Crossroad's essay "This Game We Play Called Dying."  Even dying has a narrative for each individual although by the time we are in the clutches of death we may be too ill, too sick, to tell our story to anyone. So it is the people who care for us who have to interpret our story at this stage of our lives. Hence the need, as Vivian Lam says, to be able to know whether or not the dying person wants someone with him/her now or whether she/he’d rather take the final steps alone. Therefore it is the responsibility (and I mean responsibility) of the nearest person to the dying to have found out this part of the narrative while it is possible to do so. This may be the health professional who cares and treats the dying with compassion. Dying is the final and may be the most important part of the narrative.   


Wendy French is a poet, whose latest collection of poems is Thinks Itself A Hawk (Hippocrates, 2016). Her collaboration with Jane Kirwan resulted in the book Born in the NHS (Hippocrates, 2013). She won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prize for the NHS section in 2010 and was awarded second prize in 2011. She has worked for the past twenty years in healthcare settings. She was Poet in Residence at the UCH Macmillan Centre from April 2015-2016 and this year will be working with patients/caregivers on writing memoirs. She is one of six poets invited to Bucharest to work with MA students on translations of their novels into English. She currently is writing poems to celebrate Waterloo Bridge. 

 

This Game We Play Called “Dying." A Meditation About Being on the Sidelines by Vivian Lam

The game of death is quite addictive. 

Of course, the stakes are high—it’s the end of all things, the last chance, last glance, last words. All-or-nothing; last-ditch effort. A lifetime of apologies, love, and tenderness condensed into a prognosis of months, days, a few gasping breaths.  

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