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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 2011

Heroic Measures

Gil Beall

“Doctor! Doctor! He’s stopped breathing!” the stout woman shouted, clutching at my white coat. 

It was 1953, and I was a first-year resident responsible that night for the patients on the medical ward–including those in the four-bed room the woman pushed me into. 

There I saw a melee taking place around a seventy-year-old man with chronic lung disease. 

The man had been examined and admitted that evening by my colleague, who’d given me what little information he had before leaving for the night. 

The man had been too absorbed in his breathing to talk much. We’d hooked him up to an oxygen tank and started an intravenous infusion of the bronchodilator aminophylline, which brought about modest improvement. We couldn’t think of anything else to do and agreed that his prognosis was poor. 

Now I found him unresponsive and surrounded by frantic family members. Someone had knocked a vase off the nightstand, and the floor was littered with broken glass and roses. 

Listening with my stethoscope, I thought I could hear heart sounds, but his chest wasn’t moving. And my informant was correct: He wasn’t breathing. 

But, I thought, he is not dead. I had to try to revive him.

Nowadays, » Continue Reading.

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Norma Smith

How the electrical impulse
begins in the small part
of the heart and provokes
the pumping
of the necessary

fluid, which will carry everything
we need
to live, everything
we can’t do without
those impulses
carried forward,

Carried down, 
around this body’s desire
to liveand move/about
a spark
in a small place.

About the poet:

Norma Smith has lived and worked in Oakland, California, for the better part of forty years. She has worked in hospitals her entire adult life, including a few years as an EKG monitor technician in an intensive care unit.

About the poem:

“This poem was written during the period leading up to my mother’s death from heart failure. I love how the body and its physiology lend themselves to metaphor, and how a line of poetry can illuminate that and help us see the whole person, the whole life, even as we’re focused on the body’s functioning in the moment.”

Poetry editors:

Judy Schaefer and Johanna Shapiro

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Stepping Back From the Edge

Bill Ventres

I can walk.

It’s not pretty. It’s not easy. It’s not without assistance. But I can walk.

Six weeks ago, I wasn’t able to walk. A few days before that, I’d begun a visit to the city of Antigua, in Guatemala, and was enjoying its colonial ambiance with friends.

Then, after a brief bout of sore throat, I contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that afflicts the peripheral nervous system. My body’s defense system, its antibodies triggered by the offending virus, had decided to attack the nerves in my arms, legs and trunk.

Upon awaking at 7:30 am on November 2, 2011, I could barely get out of bed. On rubbery legs, I made my way to the bedroom door to call for help. Six hours later, I was 99.9 percent paralyzed from the neck down. 

In twenty-five years of practice as a family physician, I had never seen a case of Guillain-Barre. And in all honesty, I couldn’t remember any statistics associated with the illness, such as the fact that it affects about two in 100,000 people. I only remembered that it came on quickly and could have devastating effects, which I was experiencing already.

The consulting

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Natural Selection

Jeremy Shatan

By the time my wife and I reached Hospital B’s exam room, early in the afternoon, we’d already put in a very long day. 

Across the room, which was no bigger than a galley kitchen, stood three doctors. One–I’ll call him the Chief–was the bearded, bushy-maned head of the pediatric oncology program. His explosion of salt-and-pepper hair made a startling contrast to his posh British accent. With him were Dr. Transplant, a small, kind-faced woman who specialized in bone-marrow and stem-cell transplants, and Dr. Nice, a genial young pediatrician with a Midwestern accent.

We were there with our fourteen-month-old son, Jacob. A week earlier, he’d had brain surgery at one of the city’s internationally recognized medical institutions. It had revealed a malignant brain tumor.

As my wife and I talked with the doctors, we struggled to wrap our heads around all the new terminology and medical professionals we’d encountered upon entering the world of childhood cancer. Meanwhile, as his grandmother watched, Jacob explored the books and toys in the hospital’s well-stocked, sunlit playroom. He was happy to be out and about after

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Witnessing Consent for an Autopsy

Patty Bertheaud Summerhays

“They just cut the abdomen like an operation, look in and sew him up. No one will know.”

I know the inside story–the body parts,
the heart, brain, liver, lungs,
kidney, spleen, bowel, and bladder
sliced on a cutting board
like loaves of bread.
The coroner donning a butcher’s apron
splattered with blood from the last
scrape of blade over bone,
slipping off the scalp like a mask.
The eyes stopping him 
like the end of sentences until
he doesn’t feel the frown of brow–
anger as he drills to its roots.

Emotions leaving both men
with a grasp of brain.

A slice of brain placed in formaldehyde
jiggles like a thought trying to collect its thoughts.

Every organ shredded and a piece
saved until the jar is filled with
a body of its own.
The leftovers gathered 
into a plastic bag and placed
back into the body
like a well-kept secret.

A secret longing for a slip
of the tongue.

About the poet:

Patty Bertheaud Summerhays received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University in 1991. She worked as an intensive-care nurse in hospitals in the northeastern U.S. and as a nurse and ESL teacher

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