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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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October 2010

Life of the Party

Veneta Masson

By ones and twos
we drift up to the bedroom–
the women of the family–
leaving the men to mutter
and churn downstairs.
This is women’s work,
choosing a burial outfit.
We have a list from the mortuary:
bring underthings
no shoes

Soberly we peer into the closet
slide open drawers
touch, handle, inhale.
Ah, I was with her when she bought this…
Remember the time?
What about a hat?
Oh yes, she loved hats!
No, not that!
 someone laughs.
Someone laughed!

We begin to try on, critique.
Soon the room is festooned
with strewn fashion.
We turn giddy, intimate
a raucous sisterhood.

Next day some are subdued.
We got carried away…
Maybe it wasn’t right…

And yet at the time–
in the moment–
and hadn’t she been
the life of the party?

About the poet:

Veneta Masson is a nurse and poet living in Washington, DC.

About the poem:

“Who hasn’t had the shocking experience of laughing in the face of tragedy? At first it feels wrong wrong wrong. But what a gift it can be–giving us the strength to gather ourselves and carry on. I’ll never forget that evening in my sister’s bedroom, the fragile hilarity » Continue Reading.

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Genevieve Yates

I tried to focus on the chart in front of me, but it may as well have been written in Russian. I’d been awake for thirty-two hours, and my brain, thick with fatigue, refused to cooperate. I knew I shouldn’t be working, but I was too proud, too stubborn, too something to admit that I wasn’t coping. 

On the first day of my neurosurgical rotation, the resident I was replacing had told me, “Ten-to-fourteen-hour days, twelve days on, two days off. Say goodbye to your life for the next three months!”

I was prepared for the long hours, endless paperwork and ward-round humiliations. I expected that it might be necessary to take a leave of absence from my personal life. What I didn’t expect was that my personal and working lives would collide headlong.

As I sat there, not writing up ward-round notes, my boyfriend, Adam, lay across the hall in the neurosurgical ICU. Twenty-four hours earlier, he’d had a tumor removed from the back of his brain.

We’d met in the med school library when I was a final-year medical student: Waiting in line for the photocopier, we’d struck up a conversation. Adam had just been diagnosed with testicular

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Majid Khan

I always look forward to meeting new patients–and I confess that I have a particular fondness for young patients. They are, you see, at the point in their lives where everything is possible. It’s possible to have fun when other people might feel upset, possible to enjoy oneself on Friday night after a hard week of work (or study) rather than complaining about being too tired. I love sharing in their dreams, their joys, their fun and their excitement. 

My first patient this morning is 30-year-old Kieran. We’ve never met; I wonder what she’s been up to, and if she’s planning any adventures. I’m looking forward to chatting, to exploring the “biopsychosocial” aspect of her medical complaint, as I keep urging my own students to do.

If only I didn’t have this damn toothache.

It’s my right lower wisdom tooth, I think. It’s been throbbing on and off for the past few weeks. I’ve been chewing on my left side in the hope that the ache will just go away, but it hasn’t; it catches me unawares whenever I absent-mindedly chew on the right.

Kieran, smiling and energetic even at this early hour, tells me her medical troubles–mainly

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Going Blind

Kirstyn Smith

I still dream Crayola:Scarlet, cherry, candy apple; 
Zeus’ breath, Antiguan shallows, Atlantic turmoil, August twilight; 
Green sings lime, martini olive, cypress, spring meadow, life. 
When I woke up this morning, I wanted to turn over.
Of course, you feel the same way.

I had a dream about cleaning my fingernails. I had this beautiful, shiny silver file and I
could see the brown of the dirt. Peach, compost, and ivory. Each nail suffered caked mud
beneath the many split layers, great time and precision to extract the telling debris. 
I worked to carve out the dirt, to rid my hands of the everyday work mess that drives my
soul and gossips my menial livelihood.

And I wish I could say that there was a dramatic culmination to my 
metaphorical dream. But I can’t. There wasn’t. 

I opened my eyes to see the plain old brown-grey dark 
that has been my life since the birth of my last child, the blindness that has coated my
every movement, every thought, every intention 
since before I could awaken to color and breathe.

Most days, I do not roll over. I don’t attempt to recapture the lost.
I trust my doctors to

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Justin Sanders

It looked like the skin of an orange–peau d’orange, in medspeak. My fellow interns and I had heard about it in medical school; some had even seen it before. As our attending physician undraped Mrs. Durante’s breast one sunny morning during our first month as interns, we knew that what we were seeing was bad.

Mrs. Durante wore a hospital gown and a brightly colored head scarf. She looked like a child lying in the bed: small, delicate, demure. Her face was pretty, her voice soft and deep. By contrast, the mass rounding out the side of her right breast bulged aggressively. It was firm to the touch, reddish against her olive skin. When asked, she said it hurt. 

Timidly, we interns explored its edges with gentle, over-extended fingers. In Mrs. Durante’s armpit we felt a nest of firm nodules–lymph nodes nurtured on a diet of cells growing out of control.

Cancer often hides. Here it was thriving in plain sight. To my surprise, Mrs. Durante had an air of calm detachment, as if the breast we were examining belonged to someone else, as if the pain were not her own.

What became evident that morning was not

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