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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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September 2008

In the Nick of Time

Barry Thompson

When the ringing woke me at 3:00 a.m., I hoped that it was my alarm clock. For a neurologist on call, middle-of-the-night phone calls mean trouble; as a rule, you don’t get awakened at that hour unless it’s something really serious.

At 6:00 p.m. the prior evening, a young man had shown up in the ER of one of our satellite hospitals with a severe headache. He’d been diagnosed with a tension headache and discharged with a prescription for acetaminophen with codeine. No imaging studies had been done.

Nine hours later, the patient presented to the ER at our main hospital. He was no longer fully alert, the ER doc told me. I told him to get an immediate CT scan of the head. I was out of bed and through the door in an instant, worrying about this young, otherwise healthy man with a severe headache and reduced alertness. It’s amazing how fast you can drive in the dead of night when you’re nervous that a life may hang in the balance.

I parked in my usual spot, right by the ER entrance, and ran inside. The nurse told me that the patient had been sent upstairs » Continue Reading.

In the Nick of Time Read More »


Shanna Germain

At twenty, I started working the HIV
ward, midnight to morning. Left my husband
sleeping, mouth-open to the air, to 
drive through the dark body of the city. 

Every shift, the warning about infections.
Me sliding on booties, disposable 
gown and gloves. Even through the mask,
you could smell decay, the way viruses 

swept through bodies. I did what was needed: 
held hands through double-gloves, took blood 
or confessions when I could, told off-white lies 
to thin cracked lips that knew the truth.

Once, a year or so into it, I stuck 
myself, pointed red end of an IV needle 
left in a lab coat pocket. So small a thing 
it almost didn’t hurt going in, only 

leaving, small pop and smear of two bloods mingled. 
I put the wound to my mouth and sucked before 
I thought. Fear rising, rinsed my tongue with soap,
spit someone’s dark blood into the white scrub sink,

then gave my own blood to one of the other nurses 
to be tested. At dawn, I roused my husband awake 
with my newly tainted tongue, let him slide bare 
into me, as though nothing was between us.

I tell this all like

Antibodies Read More »


Andrea Gordon

“The person with the contractions gets to pick the channel,” I reassure Jeannie, as she tries to talk me into watching The X-Files. It’s not my favorite, but I’m just the moral support–oh, and the doctor.

When she first came to see me, eight months back, Jeannie already had a four-year-old boy and didn’t think that there was much my little white nulliparous self could teach her about pregnancy. I’d offer her my book-learned advice about pregnancy or suggested sources of support, and she would listen patiently, then do what she wanted. She did show up for all her appointments, and she humored me at times: although she refused to stop smoking pot for her nausea, she cut down a little “to make you feel better.”

Jeannie shared everything without embarrassment. Well-trained resident that I was, I asked her about bleeding or discomfort during sex. She said that it sometimes hurt when she was on top, “But he don’t like havin’ to be up there doin’ all the work.”

Now, two weeks before her due date, she’s come into the office contracting. Sure that this is it, she’s already arranged care for her son. We make the ten-minute pilgrimage to

Jeannie Read More »

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