Too Little Skin for These Bones: A Meditation on Poetry and Illness by Sydney Sheltz-Kempf

   Sydney Sheltz-Kempf is a Medical Technologist at Covance Central Laboratory Services where she performs genotyping assays and companion diagnostic testing. A previous poetry chapbook (which also serves as her memoir) is scheduled to be published by The Poet's Haven in Spring 2018. Her poem " NSCLC " appears in the Fall 2017 edition of the Intima.

Sydney Sheltz-Kempf is a Medical Technologist at Covance Central Laboratory Services where she performs genotyping assays and companion diagnostic testing. A previous poetry chapbook (which also serves as her memoir) is scheduled to be published by The Poet's Haven in Spring 2018. Her poem "NSCLC" appears in the Fall 2017 edition of the Intima.

Illnesses are contagious. 

We all know this, but while the frame on the bed grows ever smaller, sometimes the faces of the grieving grow gaunt as well.  In Lauren Catlett’s poem “Thinner,” she recounts the decay of a healthy human body into nothing more than skin and bones under a hospital gown.  The stark difference between the two pounds in her mind is evident. “Tears, mine, thinner now that time has passed, wash away the picture of you, thinner than when I saw you last” she says.

And somehow – though the faces might be different in our own minds – we know exactly what she’s talking about.  We all know what that looks like. 

My poem “NSCLC” touches on the same phenomenon, from a slightly different perspective.  While Catlett’s poem focuses on the degeneration of the patient, I probe into the cracking façade of the partner at the bedside. 

Cancer can take someone away in months.  Once they’re gone, friends and family rally around the survivor with food and flowers and hollow encouragement.  And this physically alive person has a couple weeks to wallow before everyone else starts to wonder when they will get over it, when they start smiling again, when breathing doesn’t hurt so much.  How ironic that the illness that took our lover away often manifests it’s symptoms in grief.  We know this too.

But as Catlett and I both point out, sometimes grief is a cancer that stretches the skin a little too tightly over bones that are a little too weak and forces a smile that is a little too thin. 

And since you’re still reading this, something tells me that you know this too. 


Sydney Sheltz-Kempf is a Medical Technologist at Covance Central Laboratory Services where she performs genotyping assays and companion diagnostic testing.  Her previous work in Literary Darwinist criticism as applied to "The Count of Monte Cristo" was published in Purdue University's Journal of Undergraduate Research in 2015. An aspiring PhD student, she has presented her research on Segregation Distortion’s role in spermatogenesis in Drosophila melanogaster at Butler University's Undergraduate Research Conference in 2016. A previous poetry chapbook (which also serves as her memoir) is scheduled to be published by The Poet's Haven in Spring 2018.

© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine