What Was, What Is and What Will Be: A reflection on the poem “Decision” by Ron Lands by: Tharshika Thangarasa

Tharshika Thangarasa is a daughter, sister, friend and fourth year medical student at the University of Ottawa.  Her artwork    “Stroked”     appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Tharshika Thangarasa is a daughter, sister, friend and fourth year medical student at the University of Ottawa. Her artwork “Stroked” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

It is incredible how abruptly and drastically things can change. Nowhere is this more evident than in medicine.

In his beautiful piece “Decisions”, Ron Lands takes the reader through the delicate moments preceding the disclosure of a medical diagnosis to a patient. Holding the weight of the individual’s new reality, hesitant to pass it on… unsure of whether or not the person has the supports necessary to bear it.

The concept of a new reality, seemingly defined by disease is also depicted in my studio artwork entitled “Stroked”. In this image, the intricate cerebral vasculature is depicted as the branches of a tree. They serve as the highway through which nutrients are able to reach the leaf buds, allowing them to blossom. They allow blood to nourish the neurons of our higher level cortical areas, those that form our identities. A stroke, represented by the burning of these branches, is one example of a medical phenomenon that can unexpectedly, and eternally, alter a person’s life.

Yet, the task of disclosing this to the patient is in the hands of the provider. A person, who too can struggle with it’s magnitude. Providers, patients, families… no one is immune to the sometimes devastating consequences of disease.


Tharshika Thangarasa is a daughter, sister, friend and fourth year medical student at the University of Ottawa. She cultivates her own wellness at the intersection of art and medicine, and hopes to continue to embrace the humanities on her journey to becoming a psychiatrist. Her artwork “Stroked” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.


©2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

The Art of Sparing: When the Patient May Not Want to "Hear it Straight" by Xanthia Tucker

In her poem “Overwhelmed” (Spring 2013 Intima), Kendra Peterson shares a terminal diagnosis with her patient. “I told the harsh and ugly truth/ of glioblastoma multiforme,” she writes, “my practiced words unresectable and infiltrating.” In honoring his wish “just to hear it straight,” her words both describe and become his diagnosis. Once spoken, they are “unresectable and infiltrating” his understanding of the rest of his life.

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Thinking about Love, Death and Suicide by Andrea Rosenhaft

When I attempted suicide last year, in March of 2014, I didn’t write a suicide note even though I am a writer. Instead, after I took the overdose, I stumbled back to my bedroom, collapsed into a tangle of blankets and sheets and sobbed as I murmured goodbyes to my cat, Zoe. I closed my eyes and stroked her soft fur with one hand as I waited patiently to die.

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Be Patient, Listen to your Patient: A Reflection on the Difficulties of Describing a Disease by Suzanne Edison

Suzanne Edison MA, MFA, writes most often about the intersection of illness, healing, medicine and art. She has a child living with Juvenile Myositis. Her chapbook, The Moth Eaten World, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her poem " The Body Lives Its Undoing " appears in the Spring 2018 Intima.

Suzanne Edison MA, MFA, writes most often about the intersection of illness, healing, medicine and art. She has a child living with Juvenile Myositis. Her chapbook, The Moth Eaten World, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her poem "The Body Lives Its Undoing" appears in the Spring 2018 Intima.

In Rachel Betesh’s poem “Admission Assessment” that appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima, the doctor observes a patient, finding the words to describe both his condition and her understanding of his experiences. She listens well, using precise language. Her first observation is visual, she sees his posture, but almost immediately that awareness is paired with hearing his breathing. She says:

 so measured these breaths break: shallow

            like rainwater with nowhere to settle:

            he parcels air; he can’t give it away.

 

Breath as a parcel, a package that can’t be given away. Breath is precious and difficult simultaneously. As a reader I am pulled into a field of empathy; the doctor trying to understand her experience of the man. She listens acutely to his “ragged song of breathing.” and “the natural sweetness of the body / reduced to laboring: an immeasurable effort,…”

The doctor listens to what is being said as well as what is not being said. She hears his breathing and his words. He “cradles” his hand, the size of a grapefruit, and says, “now it’s everyplace, / and the air seeps and sings out, out without measure.”

She thinks his words are the most salient reason for hospitalization and should be in her assessment: “now it’s everyplace.”

The doctor is aware that not everything can be seen, that this hand is the most visible aspect of his cancer; but she knows it is in his kidneys as well.

I am reminded of William Osler’s words of wisdom to his medical students at Johns Hopkins, “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.”

What can’t be seen is often true in autoimmune diseases as well. Listening to a patient describe the experience of his or her body might help a doctor find a diagnosis, but not always.  My poem, “The Body Lives Its Undoing” (Spring 2018), speaks to this experience. Initially I use the words koyaanisqatsi and uggianaqtu from Native people’s languages that speak directly to a “life out of balance,” to the body “behaving strangely.” Then, I try to enact the feelings of the patient through the sounds of words: cawing, cacophony, clattering; hard ‘c’ sounds that cut, which lead to the image of chaos.

How to let others know the internal feeling of an autoimmune disease.  Not only the sounds of feelings, but in images such as “cascading through flames / joints and muscles dragging like a loose muffler on asphalt” that try to portray the feelings of exhaustion and inflammation that come with most autoimmune diseases.

The patient in my poem wants to find balance, knows she is “listing” in a “turbulent sea” with disease, but wants to navigate it with “…my hand      on the tiller.”

Listening with eyes, ears and an open heart and mind is what most patients want and need, even if there is no definitive diagnosis, treatment or cure. Hearing their words and giving attention creates empathy, which goes a long way towards healing and helps the patient deal with the ups and downs of a disease.


Suzanne Edison MA, MFA, writes most often about the intersection of illness, healing, medicine and art. She has a child living with Juvenile Myositis. Her chapbook, The Moth Eaten World, was published by Finishing Line Press. She has been awarded grants from Artist Trust; Seattle City Artists, and 4Culture of King County, Seattle. Poems are forthcoming in About Place Journal; Other poetry can be found in: JAMA; SWWIM; What Rough Beast; Bombay Gin; The Naugatuck River Review; The Ekphrastic Review; and in several anthologies including The Healing Art of Writing, Volume One. She is a board member of the Cure JM Foundation and teaches writing workshops at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Richard Hugo House in Seattle. www.seedison.com. Her poem "The Body Lives Its Undoing" appears in the Spring 2018 Intima.

 

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.

A Matrix for Healing: Understanding the Psychic and Moral Wounds on Clinicians During Wartime by Michael Brown, OD

Dr. Brown, in his evocative and poignant essay “The Moral Matrix of Wartime Medicine,” (Intima, Fall 2015), describes his experiences as a young physician during the Vietnam War and both the immediate and long-term effects of the psychic and moral wounds he and other military medical personnel accrued while serving in combat zones.

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The Heart in Harmony by poet and medical student Schneider K. Rancy

The mechanical properties of the heart are well understood. Tricuspid valve calcification may lead to stenosis, resulting in myocardial hypertrophy and decreased cardiac output. On the other end of the spectrum, mitral valve prolapse may lead to eventual mitral regurgitation. Eventually, chronic tendinous injury to the chordae tendineae attaching the valve to the papillary muscles may occur, producing a flail leaflet. It is simple: the heart strings produce the music of harmony. 

But what of discord? What of when the harmony fails us?

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History Lessons: What Doctors Learn When Doing Patient Histories by Natasha Massoudi

We learn in medical school to take full social, family and physical histories with a new patient. We use checkboxes to run down the list of points in each history. We are taught to be thorough and document each answer. Often though, between the checkboxes and lists, the patient’s story is forgotten.

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The Importance of Transitions: A Reflection by Ob/Gyn Andrea Eisenberg

Transitions are equally important in the hospital as day shifts to night and night to day and we hand off patients we may have been taking care of the past 12 to 24 hours. Just as children need time to adjust to a transition, so do our patients as they transition to a new day, new staff, and possibly a new baby. 

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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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