January 2022


“He pulled his Dobhoff again.”

The pager’s words echo on my retina as I indulge in a prolonged, beleaguered sigh. These are the five-minutes-til-sign-out pages that are going to push me to start Amlodipine (a blood pressure medicine) before I’m thirty.

He’s ninety-six years old. He doesn’t remember his name, where he is or what year it is. He has no proxy or next of kin. He’s not talking.

Where My Story Ends and Yours Begins

It was a Thursday morning, my first day on the medical oncology service. I hurriedly gathered my white coat and badge, the block letters “3rd Year Medical Student” unmistakable in fresh ink. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to look up at the cancer center.

This is going to be difficult, I thought.

Everyone Has a Story

As I’ve learned in my three years as a medical student, medicine teaches us to place one another in cardboard boxes with worn-out, silver duct-tape labels: “Difficult” patients, tolerable colleagues, children working as family translators, nurses balancing too many beds, the old man who just needs someone to talk to. Like everyone else, I’ve gotten comfortable interacting within the boundaries of these boxes. It’s easier. It’s safer.

And then came Shirley.

My Family’s Chronic Illness

Mother’s Day, 2020. My daughter Skyler was sitting on the tall stool at the kitchen counter, her long hair in a messy bun that she’d pulled apart as she was thinking. For months, she’d been searching for financial support to attend university in the fall. It was the deadline for a scholarship offered by the drug company Vertex to family members of patients who have cystic fibrosis (CF).

Patients like me.

A Christmas Gift

Two years. Fully masked with my eye shield every single day with no issues. COVID patients, non-COVID patients. Bring them on! I wore my PPEs, practiced social distancing, wore masks, avoided crowds, shopped during off hours. The whole nine yards and never caught COVID.

Black and White

Joe, a young Black man, has fire in his eyes as he storms down the apartment building’s front steps and into the night. It’s around 10:00 pm, and you can tell he means business as he heads across the parking lot toward a group of rough-looking white guys who are drinking beer and playing loud music.

I’m on the front porch talking with the minister as we wait for the funeral home to arrive to remove Joe’s mother’s body. Sensing something bad is about to happen, I take off after him.

A Day in Respiratory Clinic: Omicron Version

We start with only two pre-booked patients, a mom and her six-month-old baby, but by forty-five minutes into the morning, the schedule is full. I take my own COVID test (negative) and joke with the medical assistants about how they resemble pregnancy tests. Already wearing scrubs and N95 mask, I suit up with face shield, disposable gown, stethoscope and gloves. I breathe.  


          Contact: from the Latin for touch.
          Isolate: from the Latin for island.

Because your breath had touched mine,
I was obliged to metamorphose
into a separate land mass,
to wear a collar of brine
like a heavy gurgling yoke

Ten Little Soldier Boys

“Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks; one chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

“Six little soldier boys playing with a hive; a bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

“Five little soldier boys going in for law; one got in chancery and then there were four.

“Four little soldier boys going out to sea; a red herring swallowed one and then there were three.”

Adapting to Uncertainty

I retired at age 89 from a primary-care internal medicine practice of nearly six decades. Medicine as service has permeated my bones, my mind, my spirit. How can I still contribute, without a medical license, without a prescription pad? Especially in the age of omicron, with uncertainty abounding everywhere?

Perhaps examining the reality of uncertainty, and how my fellow clinicians and I learned to adapt to it, will be of some value.

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