What was it my father said to me
when I forgot to latch the gate
and we spent the night in the woods
searching for eyes among shadows
of tree trunks cast by flashlight?

And what was it I said to myself
after the first grunt, second grunt
of discomfort as I pulled a
pigtail drain from a man’s chest
without clipping the string?

Was it something about forgiveness?
About learning from mistakes?
A kind word I’d offer a friend?
I have my doubts.

The cows found their way back
and were slaughtered that spring.

His lung collapsed.

Jared Sain is a fourth-year medical student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was born and raised in rural Western North Carolina. “I attended UNC Chapel Hill for my undergraduate studies as well, where I earned a degree in religious studies with a minor in creative writing.”

About the Poem

“The poem reflects on some mistakes I’ve made. Forgetting to latch the pasture fence gate or to clip the catheter, both minor slips that had larger consequences. It also speaks to the shame around those mistakes, criticism we hear and then learn to tell ourselves.”


7 thoughts on “Recurrence”

  1. As a patient, thank you for this beautiful poem. A culture of openness and apology is not only dignified and graceful, it reduces litigation, in Canada at least. Everyone makes mistakes at work, so my heart aches for the often over-stressed medical professionals. Most patients just want to move on, so when a mistake is admitted we are relieved of the responsibility to ensure that others won’t be hurt in this way that we were hurt. So we can complete our healing.

  2. Early in my career as a nurse practitioner, when I made a mistake, I would ask one of my physician colleagues (I was the only NP) to tell me about a time when they made a mistake; to their credit, they did. It really helped me work through the shame of it all. Thanks for your humanity.

  3. Powerful and honest words… thank you for that. We all make mistakes but most of us don’t have to deal with such weighty consequences. I’m glad you carried on and gained the skills you require.

  4. I appreciate the sharing of mistakes and the human sense of shame. My own experiences with hospital-based safety issues involved no such acknowledgement, ever. And so the mistakes of others continue to haunt and anger. “I’m so sorry” would have been—indeed, would still be—so welcome.

  5. I am a medical layperson. I read a novel, “The Death Committee”, by Noah Gordon, which takes place in a Boston hospital in 1967-1968. The title is from the hospital’s mortality committee which reviewed the cause of patient deaths as a learning experience.

    In the novel, a conscientious young resident who has made a fatal mistake talks with a conscientious older doctor. The older doctor tells him, “A teenage girl died and that’s a shame. But if every doctor who ever made a mistake was disqualified, there wouldn’t be any doctors in the hospital.”

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