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Training During the Plague

Training During the Plague

If you had told me thirty years ago,
when I took call on endless sleepless nights
on incandescent AIDS wards full of fear
on which I tried to do the healing work
of drawing blood and packing leaking wounds
and viewing films of microbes gone berserk
in lungs and brains of patients wasted frail
to postpone certain death from HIV,
if you had told me then that I would see
a family with an AIDS tale just as bad—
today, two parents with disease but well,
their uncontaminated child, alive–
my doubt would equal that of Didymus
who disbelieved the Resurrection tale.
Like he who needed proof with sight and touch,
I’d need this scene to change my mind as much.

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Paula Mahon is a graduate of Dartmouth Medical School and did her family-medicine residency at the University of Rochester, NY. “My main employment is as medical director of Healthcare for the Homeless in Manchester, NH. It is a division of the public-health department and of Catholic Medical Center. I still do mostly primary care.”

About the Poem

“This poem comes from my memory of nights on call at Memorial Hospital in Worcester, MA. The hospital housed the New England Hemophilia Center. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, this became, by default, a center for AIDS patients as well. During that time, only the drug AZT was available for treatment, and I treated several patients who have stuck in my mind forever, as they perished from the disease. Flash forward to the present: I’m now a civil surgeon doing immigration physicals for people who are applying for green cards. I’ve seen families from Africa in which the parents have HIV and their children did not get infected. Witnessing this change in prognosis, over such a short time, just blew my mind.”


5 thoughts on “Training During the Plague”

  1. Wonderful entry; please keep writing, Dr Mahon! On a far lesser scale but still awful, I recall life threatening infections (meningitis, epiglottitis) from haemophilus influenza. I was a pediatric nurse. The physician and I would always hold our breaths as the LP was done, then cringe when the CSF dripped out milky with WBC’s. Years later, the vaccine for H influenza was developed, and, as a family nurse practitioner, I would occasionally meet parents who declined vaccines for their child. Challenging to convince them to vaccinate, as they had no frame of reference for how terrible H infulenza infections could be.

  2. As a relatively new doctor who trained in similar places to the author (University of Rochester family medicine, UMass Memorial hospital), I’m amazed to think of the institutional memory in those walls, and the legions of physicians trained by the generations of patients, many with more dire fates than those who would follow them. What was once a death sentence is now a chronic illness. What a medical marvel… and what a career arc. Thank you to Dr. Mahon, for your service and your art.

  3. I love the title of the poem, and still remember also, the frightening, intensifying plague that it was, and our hope for some miraculous vaccine. It was great when we found that we could help keep intrauterine transmission down by keeping the viral load lower. I was lucky to be near enough to UCSF, so we could get protocols to use in pregnancy which weren’t standard yet, but helped get those moms through. We forget how the plague wipes out whole societies. I loved the movie “the Physician” because of how it portrayed the bubonic plague. And now, we have people who have been treated as a chronic condition for decades, with no stigmata for social shunning… truly good results from the research and fervent effort to find and use effective treatments.

  4. The change over those years blows my mind, too. I remember when AIDS was frail bodies, infections, sores and death. What a marvelous achievement. Your poem said it well.

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