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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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December 2008

Tree Years

Addeane Caelleigh

We used to trade off, 
she said.

He hated trees dying in our living room. 
I always loved the blue spruces
decorated on my December birthday

But his father fell near theirs
dying in their living room
one childhood night. 

So we’d have a year with tangled lights, a crooked stand
he sometimes helped me put together
Then a year with presents stacked on the corner table,
with no dry needles to sweep.

Turn and turn again
a solstice pendulum.
A ring for each alternating year

That was before the fog that eats my life,
some years feast, none famine, 
always a forecast of more

She says, I think now 
he’d welcome any tree, any year.

About the poet:

After many years as editor of the journal Academic Medicine, Addeane Caelleigh is now associate editor of Hospital Drive, an online journal of literature and art published by the University of Virigina School of Medicine, where she is also an administrator and a teacher of faculty development. Addeane is also curator of Reflections, an interdisciplinary humanities exhibit series at the University’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.

About the poem:

Tree Years was prompted by thoughts of how chronic disease insinuates itself into » Continue Reading.

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Ripped From the Headlights

Maureen Picard Robins

“Get a notebook,” he said. 

Dr. Altman and I stood face to face on the pediatric surgical floor of Columbia-Presbyterian Babies & Children’s Hospital. It was the first week in December. A metal crib–it seemed more like a cage or prison–separated us. In this center space lay my yellow heart: my eight-week-old daughter, wounded by surgery, dulled by morphine, our whispers flying over her.

It had been nearly twenty-four hours since Dr. Altman opened the baby’s abdomen and held her tiny intestines in his hands, untwisting them like a fisherman untangling his line; nearly one day since he’d performed a Kasai procedure, fashioning a conduit so that bile could tremble down to her small intestine; one thousand four hundred and forty minutes since I’d been ripped from the headlights of the speeding car known as biliary atresia, a rare condition in which the duct from the liver to the small intestine is blocked or missing. 

“There’s a lot to learn,” Dr. Altman said. “Write down all your questions. There is no way you will remember all this.”

There was only one question I wanted to ask, and I didn’t dare.

Besides that, there were so many other

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A View From Nepal

Caroline Jones

The farmer wanted to know why his three-year-old son couldn’t walk or talk. 

I sat opposite him in a dark, cold classroom converted into an examination room for a four-day medical clinic last spring in the village of Lapa, high in the Himalayas. 

Wind whistled through the stone walls; rain pounded on the tin roof. The room’s single ceiling bulb kept flickering and dying; I had to use a camping headlamp to see my notes. And communications were hampered, to say the least: We conversed via two translators–from English to Nepali, from Nepali to the local Tamang language, then back again. It sounded a bit like the telephone game, and had similarly uncertain results.

Still, one look was all I needed to make the diagnosis: Down syndrome. I found the telltale single hand crease, eye folds and wide gap between the first and second toes and asked about the boy’s medical history: he’d never seen a doctor; sometimes he had diarrhea, fever or a cough. 

I thought back to my journey here, the last leg of which had begun five days earlier. With two other doctors, I had left Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, on a winding, bumpy, eight-hour Jeep

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Running Out of Metaphors

Howard F. Stein

His rapidly metastasizing cancer
was not his only problem:
He was not only running out
of life, he was running out of metaphors.
Metaphors had sustained him
for the four months since
they discovered the spot.
He started out 
losing weight as “The Incredible 
Shrinking Man”; then he became
Gregor Samsa for a while;
briefly he was the consumptive Violetta,
soon followed by Ivan Ilych.
He even remembered Susan Sontag 
and Solzhenitsyn and so railed
at his wasting. He leaped
from metaphor to metaphor the way
a stone skips over water. He asked
all the questions everyone asks,
but felt no comfort from
the answers. 
Companions and kin beset him
like Job’s friends. He graciously refused
their unctuous offerings, their leaden words.
Thinking could no longer save him.
His only balm now was his love for his son. 
He had at last found something that had no metaphor: 
This time, love would have to be enough.

About the poet:

Howard F. Stein PhD, a psychoanalytic and medical anthropologist, is a professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, where he has taught for nearly thirty-one

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