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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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The Journey

My first day on the wards,
the senior resident handed me a white coat
emblazoned with the twin serpents of Asclepius,
and a stethoscope I proudly draped around my neck.
I thought I knew everything
about the dying patient assigned to me.

I listened studiously to John Doe’s lungs
filling rhythmically from a little machine
with a red diaphragm that pumped up and down
and made a hissing sound that reminded me
of the snakes embroidered on my collar.
I grew to know him over weeks,
to speak in code through a system of lid blinks–
the only muscles intact after a brainstem stroke.

White moth print of a wedding ring told me
he had loved, Semper Fidelis tattooed on his arm
honored his life as a warrior. Dropped suddenly
in the street, brought in by 911. He had no family.
For days he stared like a walleyed pike
at perforated ceiling tiles–locked in–
the key forever lost on the riverbed.

I value lungs, that exquisite collection of air sacs
translucent as squid eggs, that endow our blood
with oxygen. My own lungs diseased from birth,
plagued by asthmatic wheeze, that once dropped me
like a stone, rounding second base after hitting
a home run–I recount this because of that day

when he signaled with three eye-blinks
that he wanted to fly. I tell you this because
I was asked to play god–
to cut him loose without a map or ladder
to climb back, to stop his lungs forever.
I tell you this to confess how my finger trembled
on the respirator switch. I knew, then,
that I knew nothing.

I still remember the ache in my ribs,
how he searched my eyes, how he forgave me.

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Arthur Ginsberg is a neurologist and poet based in Seattle. He has studied poetry at the University of Washington and at Squaw Valley, CA, with Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds and Lucille Clifton. In 2003 he was awarded the William Stafford Prize by the Washington Poets Association. In 2010 he attained an MFA degree in creative writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR, where he studied with Dorianne Laux, Marvin Bell and David St. John. His book The Anatomist was published in 2013. Recent works appear in the anthologies Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians and Primary Care: More Poems by Physicians (University of Iowa Press). He teaches a course entitled “Brain and the Healing Power of Poetry” in the honors program at the University of Washington.


About the Poem

“This poem was inspired directly by my experience as a clinical neurologist.”


8 thoughts on “The Journey”

  1. Constance Menard

    Breathtaking. So beautiful. Thank you to Arthur for publishing and thank you Pulse for sharing this.

  2. Hugh Blumenfeld

    Great poem. His lab coat may have had two serpents, but the staff of Asclepius has only one…
    Poetic license?
    Also, I think Galway Kinnell would have asked him to consider taking away the last two lines. Or somehow get them in before “I knew, then,…”

  3. One of the best poems I’ve seen on this site. So vivid: the stain of the wedding ring, the tattoo, the ceiling tiles, the eye blinks… I can visualize the whole scene. Thanks for this tender recollection of one of a physician’s most difficult decisions.

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