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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 Sturgeon

Kind eyes, and a fragile body like a reed
Barely just a presence on the room, as if almost fading
Already into the twilight

Under gentle, careful hands
His body unveils its story with its familiar tells.
The slender wrists, childlike, beneath pitted skin.
Deeply scooped recess above collarbones.
A subtle, solid wedge of liver,
Looming ominously below ribcage.

In a dim room, in the empty hours of the morning,
I speak in a hushed tone.
My stool tucked close to his bed,
Hand resting on the worn pommel of his shoulder.

Across the distance, I float a story.
Like a paper boat set adrift into a moonless night.
An anticipated slow fade into the gloom.
His illness, a familiar shadow with every movement.

But even sad tales suffer unforeseen turns.
Tonight, the CT scan, a sturgeon from the depths,
Rises to the surface.
It wrecks the calm mirror of the lake
And, splashing noisily, topples his vessel.

His expression is distant, but I see
He is watching the ripples left in the fish’s wake.
How cruel,
To have made peace with one difficult fate
And then have it pulled out from underfoot
Left treading water in the darkness,
Far from the expected horizon.

I dip my toe into the water, then
Swim out to where he’s floating.
On his back, his eyes searching limply
For a star to shine beyond the clouds above.
“It’s cold out here,” I venture. After a pause
He nods,
Acknowledging the gesture, even as he knows
Only one of us can return to the shore.

The lights are coming up now;
Elsewhere in the department, hubbubs grow.
Monitors beep, carts roll.
I make arrangements:
Call a beloved daughter, consults and paperwork.
Tick orderly boxes, place stickers in neat squares.

Before leaving I stop by one last time;
Call out softly into the gloom.
He’s fading now.
The cold kiss of the sturgeon’s whiskers
Lingers on my ankle through the morning.

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Patricia Massel is a rural family physician working in Canada. Since finishing her medical training she has been able to carve out time for more creative projects such as reading and trying to write poetry.

About the Poem

“I wrote this poem following my very first solo emergency department shift in a small rural hospital after I’d finished residency. The most memorable case of the night was a gentleman with metastatic cancer who presented with an acute complication of his disease. This poem reflects the experience of navigating this news, and what it felt like to sit in the moment with him. I went for a walk around the lake at sunrise when my shift was over, and this poem came out in one go.”


2 thoughts on “The Sturgeon”

  1. Henry Schneiderman

    A great poem. Shows rather than tells. Does not label the metaphor. Catches the experience of the patient and the doctor, with great economy, clarity and beauty. Brava!

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