fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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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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April 2018

Cushioning the Fall

Meghan G. Liroff ~

Angela Harris has been here in the hospital for six hours, awaiting the results of her CAT scan. I won’t take responsibility for all of that wait time: complicated CAT scans and labs do take a significant amount of time to perform. But she didn’t need to wait the last hour.

She was waiting on me–her emergency physician–because I needed to confirm her cancer diagnosis with radiology, arrange some oncology follow-up…and find the most appropriate phraseology for “You have stage IV cancer, but you don’t meet admission criteria.”

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I know how to care for my seriously mentally ill patients, while shielding myself from the pain of this work–how to let the ache go and not bring it home. But I’ve been away for a while, my guard has dropped, and there is no Star-Trek–like force field to keep my heart safe today.
My job as a psychiatrist in a large county jail provides some protections; cell doors and corrections officers guard my body. And unlike the young man I’m meeting with today, I started life in relative safety. I was not born with a congenital brain malformation giving me a speech impediment, an awkward gait, and a lowered IQ. I was not born with a predilection for schizophrenia, not adopted into a family overwhelmed by too many adoptees to be able to provide for a child with special needs.

Destinies Read More »


Ten years–wow. Congratulations, Pulse. I wish that I’d discovered you sooner. It wasn’t until 2015, while I was taking an online writing course, that my instructor recommended I visit this “free online journal dedicated to health-care stories.” On first impression, Pulse looked like a mostly physician publication. Au contraire, I was very pleased to learn that you’re inclusive rather than exclusive–and, a rare find, interdisciplinary to the point of inviting patients to send in their stories.  

Serendipity Read More »


Jeanne LeVasseur ~

Even now, some eat strawberries in the sunshine,
some pace the deck in a strong salt breeze,
while for others, the music is winding down.
Always unfair–a few of us in lifeboats,
some sinking in the icy water,
others on a slanting deck about to go under.

We make salami sandwiches on rye,
smoke a cigarette after passionate love,
and wave goodbye to the yellow school bus.
We never know when–
until the deck slants and the loud machinery
grinds still.

Lucky are those who glimpse the stars,
get a chance to be noble,
to love and forgive, as the fugitive melody swells.

Titanic Read More »

Levenberg Alchemy


Kate Levenberg

About the artist:

Kate Levenberg is a first-year medical student at Penn State. The majority of her artwork is mixed-media sculpture; however, she has recently become interested in 2-D acrylic portraiture.

About the artwork:

“It’s wild to imagine the complexities of the body described by the science of medicine. We have created a logic to measure, calculate and derive an understanding of the body’s processes, but the notion that these tiny reactions combine to somehow create humanity continues to strike me with awe. This print was created to explore this feeling and to envision the ‘magic’ lying within our physiologic structure.”

Visuals editor:

Sara Kohrt

Alchemy Read More »


Joe Burns ~

“Did you have heart surgery?”

The shy seventeen-year-old girl’s question caught me completely off guard.

Her name was Sarah. Everything about her seemed perfectly organized–her long black braid falling ruler-straight between her shoulders, her folder with all of its documents sorted by date, her matching shoes and shirt, her entire wardrobe without a single wrinkle.

Her health was a bit less perfect. She’d been born with an atrial septal defect (ASD)–a hole in the wall separating the heart’s right and left chambers. Tomorrow she was to have an operation to repair the hole, so she’d come in today, accompanied by her parents and brother, to sign the presurgical consent forms.

Scarred Read More »

Beyond Reading: Pulse as a Pedagogical Tool

I have been connected to Pulse as a weekly reader and avid supporter since its inception ten years ago. In addition, as a medical educator, I consider Pulse to be a toolbox of pedagogical resources to help learners understand how stories, poems and visuals are additive to their education across the continuum of medical school, residency and continuing medical education.

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The Magic Touch

Betsy Willis ~

Many months have passed since the spring day when I was hit with the news from my yearly mammogram, but those typewritten words are forever etched in my memory: “The density appears greater in left breast.”

My doctor comforted me with statistics showing that mammograms aren’t 100 percent accurate–but she also lost no time in sending me to a surgeon, Dr. Prewitt. Upon meeting him, I immediately felt sure that I would be in good hands. He explained the procedure he’d use and answered my questions with clarity and a very welcome gentleness.

He too expressed doubt about the diagnosis, but said, “I’ll schedule you for a parking-lot appointment with the traveling MRI-guided breast-biopsy machine.” (I pictured a brain on wheels.)

“The biopsy is minimally invasive,” he explained, “and it can locate the suspicious area precisely and remove cells that we can use to make a clear diagnosis. Based on what we find, we’ll make a treatment plan.”

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Secrets and Suicides

I must disguise the truth.

Because of HIPAA.

I must hold these heavy truths within my small-framed body. Because of HIPAA, I can’t tell you the real reasons I’m so upset–the death tolls, the suicides, the real-life people who are my patients and the real tragedies that they suffer. I have to change the identifying facts about this person or these people to the point that they are unrecognizable. They are my secret, my deep, dark secret that can fester inside of me and cause me to feel terrible. Incapable of saving. Inadequate at what I do, because what I am expected to do is everything.

Secrets and Suicides Read More »

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