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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 2010

The Ancients Had It Right

Stanley H. Schuman

In Aramaic scripture*, and Aboriginal Dreamtime.
How else could animal life begin
Except by Divine Breath, oxygen-enriched?
How ingenious! Only two atoms: O2,
Ideal for hemoglobin, mitochondria, 
Neurotransmitters, ideal for fight or flight, for vocalizing, 
For clever humans to shape tools, split atoms, 
Compose opera, sow seeds, harvest grain.

Consider my distress, in my just-opened pediatric office. 
Stumped by Angela, a three-year-old
So panicked by my white coat, no way to examine her.

Screaming, clutching Mother, she knew and I knew 
This wasn’t university-hospital, with back-up nurses.
Instead, it was one-on-one, 
Advantage Angela.

Desperate, I felt for a stray balloon in my 
Pants pocket (from my own child’s birthday).
Putting it to my lips, I strained to inflate the stubborn thing.
Instantly, Angela’s tear-reddened eyes opened wide.
The more I flushed and puffed, clown-like, 
The more she giggled, finally bursting into laughter, 
Sans fear, forgetting pain.
My breath, a yellow balloon, a child’s laughter…
Three gifts from the gods!

*Douglas-Klotz, N.: Prayers of the Cosmos, 1990 Harper, San Francisco, CA.

About the poem: 

“This poem captures two memories for me: my anxious first day in solo pediatric practice in suburban St. Louis, 1954, and my enchantment with the » Continue Reading.

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Things That Matter

Paul Gross

For me, the best part of being a doctor, and the biggest privilege, is getting to talk with people about things that matter.

“You look sad today,” I say to a patient I’m seeing for the first time–a thirty-eight-year-old woman with a headache. In response, her lower lip starts to tremble, and she wipes an eye.

As I reach for the box of tissues and hand it to her, I know that whatever has caused her tears will be more important than her presenting symptom.

A forty-five-year-old man comes in wanting help sustaining erections. When I ask for a few details, it turns out he’s having sex every single day of the week, and he’s finding it a challenge to maintain an erection for twenty to thirty minutes. When he misses a day, he has sex twice the next day “to catch up.” He has relations with his wife and also with a girlfriend who lives out of town, where he often travels on business.

Should I laugh? Let my eyes pop out of my head? Wag a finger?

Because I cherish the talking and like to think that I’m skilled at it, it’s all the more comical

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Joanne Wilkinson

I have a stress test nearly every year. I do this because my mother dropped dead of a heart attack when she was thirty-six, and now I am thirty-five.

They stick EKG leads on me, and for weeks I have blotchy red circles on my skin where it’s reacted to the adhesive. I run on the treadmill. Sometimes the cardiologist scans my heart and arteries with ultrasound; other times, he injects me with a radioactive marker. Sometimes he looks at me as though I’m wasting his time. Sometimes he frowns and looks concerned when he hears about my family history.

I always pass the test.

Why did my mother have a heart attack? I don’t have satisfying answers for this. Was her cholesterol high? I don’t know. They didn’t check young women’s cholesterol in the 1970s; they just gave them Valium for the tightness in their chests and told them not to worry. Was it because she had uncontrolled hypertension? Because she didn’t exercise? Because she was doomed?

Am I doomed?

Last night I had dinner at an extravagant restaurant in New Orleans.

I’d never been to New Orleans before, and part of me was delighted by

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Morphine, Pearl Harbor

Ann Neuser Lederer

They do not scream. They keep their hands steady as they shoot the shots.
They run from one to the next, on their rounds without walls.
The troops of well trained girls patrol the troops, their wards.

And they make them to inhale their brew
of Friar’s Balsam, tincture of tree resin:
Pines and cooling mountain breezes in the steaming, smoke filled chaos.
Pliable amber beads, shrines for prehistoric bees,
crumbs for tuneful fiddles lull like opium beds
on the dark, explosive rocks

And though they run around, the nurses are careful.

They inscribe the letter M on the foreheads of those they have dosed,
They make their gentle mark on foreheads doomed or wounded,
under dust and thunder.

About the poet:

Ann Neuser Lederer was born in Ohio and has also lived and worked in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Kentucky. Her poems and creative nonfiction can be found in journals such as BrevityDiagram and Hospital Drive, in anthologies such as A Call to Nursing (2009) and The Country Doctor Revisited (2010) and in her chapbooks Approaching FreezeThe Undifferentiated and Weaning the Babies. She has earned degrees in anthropology and in nursing, is employed as an RN and is certified in oncology nursing

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Lost in the Numbers

Donald Stewart

A nurse entered the operating room; her eyes–the only part of her face visible above her surgical mask–held a look of mild distress. She stood quietly until the surgeon noticed her.

“What is it?” he said.

“It’s your patient in 208, Doctor. His pressure is 82.”


“Yes, Doctor.”

The nurse was referring to Mr. Johnson. The previous week, we’d removed a small tumor from his lung without difficulty–and, until now, without complications. He’d been transferred out of Intensive Care to the main surgical floor, and that very morning we had removed the last drainage tubes from his chest. He was scheduled to go home the next day.

Now his blood pressure was plummeting.

“Doctor Stewart, break scrub and go see what’s going on. Nurse, grab that retractor.”

Grateful for the break in a mind-numbing routine (as a surgical intern, my job in the OR was to stand for hours, holding the incision open as the surgeons worked), I stepped away from the table and out of the room, removing my sterile gown and gloves along the way. Running up the stairs to the second floor (surgical residents, like the military, take the steps two at a time),

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