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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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Unreturned Pages

Doug Hester 

Exhalations materialize in the dark as I walk
from the empty parking deck. I brew coffee,
then print a list–our census is up to thirty.
I grab my coat and start seeing patients:
the gastric bypasses, the nine ex-laps,
the psychotic panniculectomy patient,
and the bowel obstruction we are watching.
I page just before six to ask about his diet,
but you don’t answer me, so I move on,
jotting ins and outs, celebrating flatus.
Knocking on the Whipple’s door, I think
of you suddenly and my gut spasms,
smothered by the weight of living like this.
I page again from the ICU, staring at a phone,
wondering if it has finally gotten to you, torn flesh
with no one to hold pressure or throw a stitch.

I remember your face, how you look on rounds,
the light in your pupils fading to a dull black.
Waiting for a reply, I prewrite some discharges.
I know you’re just running late for rounds,
but I wish you’d call me back about the diet.

Editor’s note: The term ex-lap is medical shorthand for exploratory laparotomy, a procedure used to examine the abdominal organs; panniculectomy is the surgical removal of certain excess abdominal fatty tissue; and a Whipple procedure is an operation used to remove a pancreatic cancer.

About the poet:

Doug Hester is an academic anesthesiologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. His academic work focuses on airway management and resident education. “When I’m not working or spending time with my wife and daughter, I write poetry, fiction and essays about medicine, fatherhood and adoption–subjects I think over throughout my day.” His work has appeared in publications such as The Examined Life Journal, Anesthesiology and Chest.

About the poem:

“This poem was inspired by a recent, cold morning commute on foot into work that recalled the distant, cold February mornings of my surgical internship. The camaraderie that developed among the interns and residents during that stressful year created fear when one of us failed to show up. The frustrations and fatigue of the job made us wonder if the person was physically okay; many programs have at least one story of suicide. We would continue our workday, picking up the slack for the missing person and hoping that the no-show was simply a case of oversleeping. We rarely talked of our fears about suicide or car accidents.”

Poetry editors:

Johanna Shapiro and Judy Schaefer

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3 thoughts on “Unreturned Pages”

  1. Loretta Carter-Mille

    This story brought back memories I’d long forgotten. I was a third year nursing student on psychiatric rotation at Bellevue Hospital. My grestest fear was that somehow staff would discover that I was a candidate for admission. One of our favorite clinical instructors was a pretty, vivacious RN who appeared to be the epitome of sanity (to me) so I worked on emulating her energy and skills. Returning to duty prepared to “look” normal I was told that the instructor had committed suicide. I was sure I’d never make it out of the rotation but would be kept on the female ward. On the last day of this 3 month rotation,while returning with classmates on board the ferry that took us back to Metropolitan Hospital, others expressed their fears of being found insane. We were all made aware by the death of our instructor that sanity was not always judged by appearance nor was insanity. This event took place in 1953. Reading this poem sent me back 63 years.

  2. martina Nicholson

    Thanks for this wonderful poem! It is rare to see into the mind of busy surgeons, and the way we are uneasy in the silence from colleagues of loved-ones— maybe because we are so graphically connected to the vital body facts of our patients. I also lost a fellow chief resident — disappeared with a new love– just walked out and never came back. At least not suicide. There is a marvelous lucidity in your poem about how little we know about what is going on in the mind of a colleague when the “light” seems to have gone out of their previously sparkling eyes.

  3. Wonderful expression of the worry we carry…I could relate as a nurse……during the shift…sometimes on the way home from work…or wake up wondering about in the middle of the night…Thanks, Doug

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