My first day on the wards,
the senior resident handed me a white coat
emblazoned with the twin serpents of Asclepius,
and a stethoscope I proudly draped around my neck.
I thought I knew everything
about the dying patient assigned to me.
I listened studiously to John Doe’s lungs
filling rhythmically from a little machine
with a red diaphragm that pumped up and down
and made a hissing sound that reminded me
of the snakes embroidered on my collar.
I grew to know him over weeks,
to speak in code through a system of lid blinks–
the only muscles intact after a brainstem stroke.
White moth print of a wedding ring told me
he had loved, Semper Fidelis tattooed on his arm
honored his life as a warrior. Dropped suddenly
in the street, brought in by 911. He had no family.
For days he stared like a walleyed pike
at perforated ceiling tiles–locked in–
the key forever lost on the riverbed.
I value lungs, that exquisite collection of air sacs
translucent as squid eggs, that endow our blood
with oxygen. My own lungs diseased from birth,
plagued by asthmatic wheeze, that once dropped me
like a stone, rounding second base after hitting
a home run–I recount this because of that day
when he signaled with three eye-blinks
that he wanted to fly. I tell you this because
I was asked to play god–
to cut him loose without a map or ladder
to climb back, to stop his lungs forever.
I tell you this to confess how my finger trembled
on the respirator switch. I knew, then,
that I knew nothing.
I still remember the ache in my ribs,
how he searched my eyes, how he forgave me.