Chilled Breaths

Stepping off the bus, the first faces
I see are the same every February.
Hard construction hats, yellow vests
flashing, grit etched upon their faces.
Daylight Savings ensures that these
are the last sights of light before
entering sterile linoleum floors.

When he enters my clinic, I do a
double take. Who would have guessed
that I would remember his face without
the construction uniform? We talk about
his shortness of breath, cough with
yellow sputum, worsening fatigue.

These mornings, I search for him
between chilled breaths. Sometimes,
he is working to expand the new
bridge. Other times, he is chatting
with friends, taking a smoke.

In two weeks, his imaging shows
a peripheral mass that we biopsy
In another two weeks, I will
refer him to oncology. In time,

I no longer search for him, the
cranes move on elsewhere,
and each day is a little longer.

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Ellen Zhang is a third-year medical student at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Harvard College, where she studied under Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham, poet Rosebud Ben-Oni and poet Josh Bell. Her poetry has been published in JAMA, Hektoen International, JAMA Oncology, Boxcar Poetry Review and elsewhere. “I aim to use poetry as a lens through which to view the beauty and complexity of medicine.”

About the Poem

“Sometimes the most powerful moments extend beyond the clinic in unusual ways. This poem was inspired by such an incident, but also highlights the idea that, as healthcare providers, we wonder how our patients are doing even when they have stepped outside of our doors. Through the stanzas getting shorter with each line, I also hope to represent the fragility of time and life.”


6 thoughts on “Chilled Breaths”

  1. Nolan Snider, MD

    Before his illness, you were part of the faceless throng passing his work site. Before his appointment, he was one of many guys in a hard hat on a work site. A cough, shortness of breath, and worlds collide. Suddenly, you’re his doctor, he’s your patient, and you’re vitally important to each other.
    This is a reminder that when we are off work walking in the crowd, we’re just a human and none of those humans we pass are just a human.

  2. Joy Gaines-Friedler

    I love the perspective of this poem – the juxtaposition of construction of the hospital and the medical worker inside. The construction worker soon to become a patient. The doctor looking for him. Well done.

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"On Being Different"