Whatever Else

Whatever Else
Of course, I wanted to save you
from all this–from machines
and plastic tubes, from the shooters
with their dyes, from the guys
who scan your organs
for the truth, from waits in cold rooms
whose lights illuminate your life
and make it…nothing. I respected
the darkness in you–your son
dead in a senseless crash, the stroke
itself, your husband’s absence.

Of course, I wanted to save you
from being a broken machine
or a body of evidence
and, therefore, meaningless.
Which is why I said, Your pain
is the great chameleon, my friend,
depression, and why I sketched
in your heaviness the darkness
of circumstance. Nonetheless,
I was wrong. A badly broken heart
was choking you, its faulty part
was murmuring in my ear.
Of course, I wanted so much
to reach into your sad life
and pull you out, I lost sight
of your body, especially
the turbulent whisper
of your heart. Which is why
when you reached the hospital
they called me to say, Whatever else
she’s got, her aortic valve
is tightly shut. It’s critical.

Jack Coulehan is a poet, physician and medical educator whose work appears frequently in medical journals and literary magazines. His seventh collection of poetry, The Talking Cure: New and Selected Poems, will be published in May 2020 by Plain View Press. In 2012 he received the Nicholas Davies Award of the American College of Physicians for “outstanding lifetime contributions to the humanities in medicine.”

About the Poem

“Physicians experience anxiety, guilt, shame and loss of confidence as a result of making a serious medical error. Often, they have no support system to help them work through these feelings. This poem helped me to frame my apology to a patient whose depression so occupied my thinking that I neglected to diagnose her severe aortic stenosis.”


6 thoughts on “Whatever Else”

  1. Warren Holleman

    Jack Coulehan’s poems speak to me in powerful ways, and this one is no exception. Brutal honesty combined with unsuspecting compassion.

  2. Thank you so much – I’ve more than once “lost sight of [their] body”, overwhelmed by my patients’ grief and loss, focused so much on accompanying in an effort to alleviate some of the suffering. It’s such a difficult and delicate balance yet so easy to overlook this when we get it wrong.

  3. Stephanie Friedman

    This moved me a great deal, which I take to mean that the poet, unknown to me, accomplished in the poem what he wanted to–apologizing to the patient for his mistake; and in so doing, opened our own hearts.

  4. Victoria Kisslinger

    I may be naive, but I do believe that most of my patients would forgive me for missing a physical diagnosis as long as I work very hard to know them and also hear their emotional needs.

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