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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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Teaching the Wound

Joanne M. Clarkson

                    For LS

Assume pain, I tell them, the young, the
minimum-waged, those who work the midnight
shift with no chance for stars. We lean
over the bed of a 93-year-old man with advanced
Parkinson’s disease. His face is
frozen, even his eyes don’t seem to move
unless you watch the sheen. These

student aides are to turn him, bathe and lotion
his stiffened limbs. After they roll him silent
and awkward as a rug, I notice the bandage
discolored with seepage, covering his left
calf. The notes had not mentioned

a wound. Someone should have given
him a pill, an elixir, some remedy before we started
the fumbling torture of water and
rag. I ring for the med nurse, emphasizing
again: Can you understand that most patients

in this situation would be feeling pain? One
is texting when he thinks I don’t
see. Another turns her head, fingering her
hair in the mirror over the tiny sink. Another
glances at the clock. Two whisper together.
I can teach skills and charting aimed at avoiding
termination and litigation, how to keep a

license clean, but it is next to impossible to force
someone to leave their own
body, crawl beneath flesh still warm beyond
sense or usefulness. True pain is
individual. I turn back to the bed. The girl
with the basin of water that she has
checked three times for temperature without

being told, the one with almost no
English, rinses the cloth and parts
skin folds, all the time murmuring
into his silence, reassuring him, speaking
his name that even I had forgotten.

About the poet:

Joanne M. Clarkson’s work has appeared in Nimrod, Naugatuck River Review and The Midwest Quarterly; her fourth poetry collection, Believing the Body, was published this year. She has master’s degrees in English and library science and worked for many years as a teacher and professional librarian. After caring for her mother through a long illness, she trained as a registered nurse, specializing in hospice and community nursing. Many of her poems are inspired by her patients and their caregivers.

About the poem:

“One of my roles is to instruct caregivers, both in the home and in facilities. One of the most difficult things to teach is empathy. As the final lines of this poem reveal, those I work with often instruct me.”

Poetry editors:

Johanna Shapiro and Judy Schaefer



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14 thoughts on “Teaching the Wound”

  1. Such a true scene, taking place while others of us may be sleeping in our own warm beds. Sometimes, when I’m nodding off, I think about my father’s last nights in a far away hospital and wonder who was checking on him for pain and comfort when he could no longer speak. Who will be there for many of us? Thank you for this poem and story.

  2. Thank you for this. Individual compassion will always be at odds with schedules, treatment algorithms, flow charts, and the priorities of time-clock caregivers and stop-watch administrators. I hope this will be shared widely.

  3. Lovely. Not sure that we can teach what the nurses aid in the last stanza knows so well and reminds anyone who takes the time to watch.

  4. I too love this poem! Wonderful! Once my mom was in the hospital after a car accident, and she was in a lot of pain. The person assigned to bathe her came in, and started to scrub her poor-old-lady thin-skinned white chest as if it were a dirty floor. She woke from drowsing on morphine, screaming. I told the woman to STOP. I asked whether anyone had told her that this patient had been in a car accident, and that she also had a pacemaker which distorted the upper left chest. She said no, they just tell her who to give bed baths to, when she comes in to the hospital. There is a problem with this lack of communication, and it is a menace to every person in pain who ever will come into such a set-up. Your poem exactly covers the hope we ALL have, that someone who has native compassion will take care of us! THANK YOU!

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