The Limits of Medicine

I can not change the color of the sky.

The texture of the rain, the distance of a star
must needs be fixed by ancient ritual
unaccepted by our modernity.

I can not change the length of your night.
The number of hours, the days of your life
are set by stern fate, impassive to sighs,
unsympathetic, and cold to your plight.

I can not count the breaths that are left.
Day into day, year into frightened morn,
only you, in your heart can know
the obscurity of the sand that now sifts.

I can not make a single tear move;
Its salt will wend its way to the earth
that calls with an irresistible force,
one that will not soon leave off.

I have been roundly trounced
by movements and thunderings greater
by far than my hand’s grasp;
and for their final victory, I apologize. 

About the poet: 

Frances Wu is assistant director of the Somerset Family Medicine Residency Program in Somerville, NJ, and teaches at New Jersey Medical School/UMDNJ and Drexel University College of Medicine. “My passions include caring for my patients as if they were members of my family; teaching family medicine, bioethics and patient safety to medical students and residents; and compressing my work into a half-time schedule in order to fit in the other important things in my life: I take care of my two sons and husband, volunteer for the Human Rights Clinic of the nonprofit HealthRight International, lead a neighborhood poetry-reading club and sometimes participate in National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. Poetry writing is my way of savoring the moments of life that shape the soul.”

About the poem:

“I wrote this poem when confronting my aged father-in-law’s slowly declining health. I am a family doctor–not his–but I certainly felt helpless in the face of his inexorable illness.”

Poetry editors:

Judy Schaefer and Johanna Shapiro

About the Poem

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Poems

Popular Tags
addiction alcohol addiction allergies anatomy lab bedside manner bigotry breast cancer cancer caregiver stories caregiving chemotherapy child abuse childbirth children chronic illness complementary therapies connecting with patients coping with death coping with illness coping with patient death cross-cultural health care cultural competence death and dying death of a parent dementia depression diabetes disability doctor-patient communication doctor-patient relationship doctor as patient doctor poems doctor stories drug addiction end of life end of life decision making faith family medicine forgiveness frustration with healthcare system genetic disorders geriatrics getting the news healing health care policy health care politics health insurance HIV humor ill parent immigration inequality international health labor and delivery leukemia medical errors medical student stories medical training medicine memorable patients mental health mental health professional stories mental illness military medicine miracles miscarriage mistakes neuroscience nurse poems nurse stories ob/gyn palliative care parent stories Parkinson's disease patient-centered care patient poems patient stories pediatrics personal remembrance physician assistant stories poem poems/poetry pregnancy PTSD race realizing human mortality resident stories role modeling self care social determinants of health social issues social worker stories spirituality stress and burnout suicide surgery thanksgiving the bad doctor visuals war veteran
Scroll to Top