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One Big Stress Test

On Friday, February 29, my wife Mary and I had back-to-back doctor’s appointments at Kaiser Permanente in Moreno Valley—she to talk about a puzzling lethargy that had been dogging her and I to talk about an odd chest pain that I thought a remnant of the flu I’d had in late January.

Dr. McDougal listened to my heart and then listened to my description of the pain.

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This Is Why

February 2016
Tierra Nueva, Dominican Republic
I’m in the last of five days caring for patients at rural clinics in western DR, along the Haitian frontier.
Tierra Nueva, miles from anywhere, is a collection of clapboard shanties and shacks scattered along a dusty, unpaved road that dead-ends at the border. People survive here by coaxing vegetables out of the earth via scratch farming. The lucky ones have a goat and maybe some hens.
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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.

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Sounds

Sounds

Sound comes crawling through, leaping
from its suitcase of slightly sweaty skin
across to the diaphragm, a divide keeping
him from me, now breached, the world now open
crawling up a well-used black rubber tunnel
to my ears, calling to me, waiting to begin
knowing, albeit briefly, the mysteries within.
Slow, deep whoosh, slow, deep rumble,
in, out, in, out, in, out, the rhythm of breath,
repetition,

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Shock of Recognition

Lying in a hospital bed while awaiting heart surgery, I looked at my teen daughter and my parents, then smugly pointed out the irregular slashes on the cardiac monitor.

“See these?” I said. “They’re called PVCs. My doctor is going to fix them. Make them all go away.”

The asymmetrical rhythm, a frequent and annoying pattern of multiple skipped heartbeats, had plagued me for the last three years, despite my swearing off caffeine

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Scarred

Joe Burns ~

“Did you have heart surgery?”

The shy seventeen-year-old girl’s question caught me completely off guard.

Her name was Sarah. Everything about her seemed perfectly organized–her long black braid falling ruler-straight between her shoulders, her folder with all of its documents sorted by date, her matching shoes and shirt, her entire wardrobe without a single wrinkle.

Her health was a bit less perfect. She’d been born with an atrial

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