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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 2012

Restricted Parking

Daniel Becker

In silhouette, in pantomime, in slow motion,
she’s dropping him off, but instead of 

a see-you-later kiss, they slap palms, high fives,
except they miss–

twice the sound of one hand clapping–
and there they go again: arms raised, hands poised,

holding then un-holding their applause
as they deliver unto one another. Meanwhile, 

that’s my space they linger over.
A kiss is just a kiss, but this

is a circuit to complete, an orbit to repeat, 
a moment that needs time

the way a couplet needs to rhyme. 
Parting is to parking as sweet sorrow is to sour, 

and more so–trust me–if they’re here tomorrow. 

About the poet:

Daniel Becker practices and teaches internal medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine where, he says, “I am one of the few faculty who can’t complain about parking. I have a primo space.” 

About the poem:

“I have a soft spot for wives dropping husbands off, husbands dropping wives off and partners dropping partners off, and for that moment of separation, so ripe with promise.”

Poetry editors:

Judy Schaefer and Johanna Shapiro

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Fifty Minutes

Elizabeth Tyson-Smith

“I know it will kill me,” my patient Jan says calmly. 

We sit in my office looking out on the river below, which glints in the fall sunshine. It is a warm day for November. Jan has just learned that her breast cancer has spread to more internal organs. 

Her doctors have told her that she will not recover.

I–who have had breast cancer twice–cringe inside. Jan’s blue eyes fix on mine, but she expresses no emotion at all. 

In 1990 a routine mammogram showed a bright white constellation in my breast. The biopsy was positive. I heard four words: “You have breast cancer.” I was forty-eight; I was certain it would kill me.

Jan is forty-five, married, with two young children. Although she’s been living with metastatic breast cancer for three years, her main focus in our sessions is not her cancer. When we discuss how hard it is to lose other members in her support group, she doesn’t mention herself in that context. She shows despair only when speaking about her children and how horrible it will be when they

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Closing up the Cabin

Robin Schoenthaler

I met Burt the Monday before Labor Day. As I walked into the room, he stood up–a sturdy, fifty-three-year-old guy with a direct, sky-blue gaze. Although he was a little etched around the eyes, he mostly looked the picture of health.

Two years before, he’d had a cancer. It was treated and thought to be gone. But for several weeks now, he’d been having excruciating low-back pain; he rated it a ten out of ten. The day before, a new CT scan had revealed that his original tumor had spread to his liver and bones. A spiderweb of tumor damage in his spine was the cause of his pain. 

If I were a layperson or if this were my brother, I’d be hysterical. But I’m a radiation oncologist (a doctor who gives radiation to cancer patients), and this was my patient. I’d seen this kind of thing before, and I felt hopeful that radiation could help. 

During our visit, I spoke frankly but moved slowly, trying to both honor the situation and help the family cope with the nightmare Burt now faced:

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Elixir of Love

Howard Stein

(with apologies to Gaetano Donizetti and gratitude to Helen Fisher)

Oh dopamine! Elixir of love!
Beloved catecholamine neurotransmitter,
Child of the hypothalamus–
To you I owe all passion.
In you are all the wiles of Venus,
The drunken orgies of Dionysus.

When I fall in love,
It is you, phantom brew,
Whom I truly cherish.
My beloved in flesh
Is only a stand-in
For the biochemistry between us.

Oh dopamine! Sly Trickster!
You are crueler than Narcissus!
It is not even my self,
But my chemicals,
Whom I most adore. 

About the poet:

Howard F. Stein PhD, a medical and psychoanalytic anthropologist, is professor and special assistant to the chair in the department of family and preventive medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where he has taught since 1978. His most recent book is In the Shadow of Asclepius: Poems from American Medicine, with a foreword by Jack Coulehan MD. 

About the poem:

The inspiration for this tongue-in-cheek poem comes from Helen Fisher’s essay “The Madness of the Gods,” which appeared in the January 2011

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