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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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February 2009


Elizabeth Szewczyk

I couldn’t erase their words,
catch the breath atoms, stuff
them between lips,
couldn’t raise survival rates,
lottery odds dependent on cells suctioned
at the precise moment.

Your chest thumping, frantic,
valves siphoning warmth, drawing
cold through vessels, to your feet
crisping leaves beneath us while
you spoke her life.

Replaying slowly, baby girl, toothless
smile, creative toddler scissoring
Barbie hair (and styling hers to match).
Then, like a runner, sprinting
to that day the tumor revealed
itself, unveiled her future and yours.

You visioned her mane, now extinct,
loose, straight, gracing the crook
of her back, gracing the oval of her
face, strands like gold
embroidery framing emerald eyes.

We’d be mother-friends,
shooting Prom pictures,
scarlet satin shushing past her hips,
his fingers yanking the collar of his tux.
They’d glisten, her upswept hair
perfumed hibiscus.

About the poet: 

Elizabeth Szewczyk’s poems have appeared in Westward QuarterlyCrazylitChanterelle’s NotebookShapes andFreshwater, which she co-edits. She is also the author of the memoir My Bags Were Always Packed: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Son’s Cancer Treatment and Remission (Infinity Publishing, 2006) » Continue Reading.

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See One, Do One, Teach One

Lisa DeTora

Back when I was in graduate school and working as a medical writer, a physician told me that the key to learning medical knowledge was simple: see one, do one, teach one. It was a clever (and effective) way of convincing me that I was qualified to teach something–like how to write a report–that I’d only attempted once myself.

Now, on days when nothing goes right, I find myself thinking back to that expression–and to the years when I used to see and do more, before I tried to teach anyone anything.

Soon after college, I worked at a private outpatient facility supervising the care and treatment planning for eighteen developmentally disabled adults. I was, in my own fashion, hoping to make a difference.

My program taught skills that would, we thought, enable our students to enter the workplace. But after years of observing and tracking their progress, I came to understand that most would never hold a job–and that some disabilities outweigh even decades of hard work and incremental improvements.

Some of my class, after taking doses of Haldol or Thorazine on a hot afternoon, would glaze over during group activities. I’d keep an eye on them

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Wounded Messenger

Jean Howell

I pulled back the plunger, sucking lidocaine from the bottle into the syringe as I prepared to lance Jimmy’s abscess. A voice in my head kept repeating, like a mean-spirited parrot, that I’d never done this procedure before–not even under supervision, and certainly not by myself…

I’d met Jimmy two months earlier. He’d come into our clinic with a fever, shortness of breath, a horrible cough, and a crumpled paper photocopy of a chest x-ray taken at another clinic. They’d diagnosed pneumonia and given him a course of antibiotics.

But now a month later, still coughing and drenched in sweat every night, he’d come to see us. He was pale, perspiring, exhausted and in pain. His respiratory rate and pulse were up; his temperature was 100.3.

When I listened to the bottom of his right lung, it sounded as though he were breathing underwater. I excused myself to discuss his case with my supervising physician. We agreed that we needed another chest x-ray as well as some basic labs.

This new film looked just as bad as the previous one. As I stared at it, I noticed thick white shapes where the airways entered the lungs.

“This doesn’t

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The Women of Victoria Ward

Muriel Murch

I remember 
The women of Victoria Ward.

The laughter of Liz,
before there were good prostheses
before falsies
left, right or bilateral
were built into the cup size of your choice.
Pacing the corridors
and knitting.
Ready to go home.
Building her strength
with a strand of yarn 
Tumbled upwards from the empty cup
against that scarlet scar
beneath the bodice 
of her bright summer dress.

I remember 
Winnie’s eyes
watching feces pour
in a torrent
down her abdomen
searing her flesh
until I bathed her body
changed the bed
and wiped away
her tears.
We named that 
foolish pink protuberance 
her own John Thomas.
Her slow, shy smile 
heralded victory
for the moment.

About the poet:

Muriel Murch (//“> graduated as a nurse in England in 1964, adding a BSN from San Francisco State University in 1991. Her book Journey in the Middle of the Road: One Woman’s Journey through a Mid-Life Education was published by Sybil Press in 1995. Her prose and poetry have been included in several anthogies including Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies (Kent State University Press, 2007). Muriel continues to write stories and poetry while tending her organic farm and

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