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.
Despite Dr. Peterson’s efforts, her conversation doesn’t go as planned. “Satisfied he stood,” she describes after her announcement, “then crumpled to the floor in faint.” His body is a step ahead of his mind, which comes around with a revised request: “Doc please, don’t ever speak to me/ that way again.”
Not every patient wants to hear it straight. Early in my third year of medical school, I took care of a woman on the oncology floor whom I write about in my poem “Neuropathy,” which appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Intima. She only wanted to hear good news, she told me one day, and it was easy for me to acquiesce. Like Dr. Peterson, I tried to honor my patient’s request – even as I dutifully documented evidence of her body’s deterioration in my daily progress notes. Months after I had left the service for another rotation, her plea to suspend the inevitable kept me from reopening her chart and unveiling the ending she wanted to be surprised by if she had to experience it at all.
Together, “Overwhelmed” and “Neuropathy” paint different pictures of numbness, both unbidden and intended. We try to learn from these haunting experiences, but the moral can be elusive. How may we engage with daily tragedy and not become numb ourselves? How can we survive with our hearts intact?
Xanthia Tucker is a third-year medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. Before deciding to become a doctor, she studied comparative literature, theater, and creative writing at Harvard College. She dreams of a humanistic and artistic career in medicine, inspired by her childhood idol, William Carlos Williams, and her grandmother, a painter. She also loves to sing, cook, backpack, and take naps with her cat, Elio. Her poem “Neuropathy” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
©2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine