Winning

Amy Odom

Like an old Atari video game I attack the folders in my inbox
Successfully devouring each power pellet placed in my path
Gulp, gulp.
Faster, faster.
Pushing to the finish line where husband and kids are waiting.
I am anxious to hear the digitalized music announce my victory.

Apparently, I am accumulating rewards for all of my clicking
            cherries for remembering to recheck labs
            stars for sending patient reminders
            extra lives for erasing the red in my registries
It seems that I am winning the game.
Perhaps on target to my all-time highest score.

One by one the inbox folders disappear
            Results–gone
            Patient messages–annihilated
            Refill requests–vaporized
Pretending to be invisible Ms. Pac-Man
I navigate through the maze of stories and ping-ponged charts
Excited that the screen is almost clear and
I am closer to winning…

Until, out of the blue,
a ghost appears
And gobbles me up.

While tabbing into chart review
I am warned
“You are entering the chart of a deceased patient”
And the game stops
My extra lives are gone
The joystick is short-circuited

As I enter the chart, the arcade façade fades away
Replaced by a weighted cloak of grief and warm memories
I smile as I think of him ten years ago,
Wearing a saucer-sized belt buckle with a picture of his young wife baked onto its enamel

And the times in between then and now
when he joked and smiled and never complained as the waves of dementia, pulmonary fibrosis and lymphoma lapped at his feet.

Then my mind turns to his wife,
Whose caregiving roles include her husband, an adult son with disabilities, an alcoholic daughter, 11 birdhouses and countless squirrels
I close my laptop and pick up the phone.
She answers, and the authenticity of gratitude in her voice sounds better to me than any victory song.
My attempt at high score will have to wait for another day.

About the poet:

Amy Odom is a family physician on the faculty of the Sparrow/Michigan State University Family Medicine Residency program. She devotes much of her academic time to helping young physicians navigate the intersections of behavioral science, clinical care and personal growth. “Throughout my life, writing has always been the most natural way of practicing self-reflection.” Her poems have appeared in the journals Family Medicine and Families, Systems, & Health.

About the poem:

“For me this poem represents the hard and soft edges of what we do every day in clinical practice. We are constantly forced to perfect new ways to be efficient and clinically up to date, while also getting home in time to put dinner on the table. In the midst of all that, however, comes the reality of what it means to have a loving relationship with patients and their families.”

Poetry editors:

Johanna Shapiro and Judy Schaefer

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10 thoughts on “Winning”

  1. Henry Schneiderman

    Beautiful feeling and beautiful writing, Amy Odom.
    One of our best and most humane UConn Internal Medicine Chief Residents went to become a teaching hospitalist at Sparrow about four years ago (has family in the area), and I am mortified that I can’t call up his name for I believe he is just the kind of person for whom your example and mentoring find very fertile ground.
    Thank you for this poem; I agree with the others who wrote about it, it reminds us of the living fruit underneath the rind of our paperwork…

  2. Stunning. I was reading quickly, on pace with the staccato “video game,” until… “And the game stops” My breathing and reading slowed.

    My heart aches when I read blogs/essays/articles written by physicians about the challenges and frustrations of practicing medicine today…mostly because of the many mean-spirited, cynical responses (by colleagues and lay persons alike).

    The latest example of this is the Wash Post piece I read just now (“In America, the art of doctoring is dying” by Dr. Jerald Winakur), right before I opened yesterday’s Pulse email and read Dr. Odom’s poem…and comments. The exact antidote I needed at this moment.

    PS Pulse continues to be a steady, shining light, week-in and week-out. It’s sad that so few of us support the work of the committed Pulse team. As the founder of a new nonprofit, I am painfully aware of the importance of the financial support (big and small) of like-minded souls.

  3. I too have to enter the records of deceased patients, a virtual space and yet hallowed ground. Thank you for your poem.

  4. Dear Amy,

    Although poetry often comes hard to me, your changes in rhythm and emotion stopped me. They, and your images, capture so well the work and feelings of being a doctor today.

    Thank you.

  5. I slid my shinny coin into the Pulse pinball machine and must have tapped my right flipper with just the perfect amount pressure even before the long spring of the chromium plunger that released my first scratched ball bearing with the hope it would hit the jackpot. It did, thank you Amy for the wonderful insight. Hey, anyone have a spare quarter? Or a better way to not write run-on sentences.

  6. These sacred moments of shared humanity are healing for my patient(the family) and for me the wounded healer. Thank you for sharing your humanity and caring.

    Leo Elizondo M.D.
    Family Physician

    1. Dr. Elizondo, I may end up using your comment in an article I’m writing about physician burnout. Thank YOU for still being able to recognize and acknowledge the sacred space and for still practicing medicine. We’re losing too many of the best-of-the-best to quitting, retiring early, and death by suicide.

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