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.Read More
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.Read More
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.
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.
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
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.
In this Crossroads blog, poet Catherine Klatzker reflects on another poet's work in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
the lyrical dancer withinRead More