doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: poetry

The rime of the tired medical student

I recently finished the internal medicine rotation at medical school. Exhausting isn’t the word. How many hours of sleep you get hardly matters. Not when you consider all the listening, watching, walking, talking, typing, reading, and learning, all of it intense.

Most of my team’s patients were on the same floor, but a few were scattered elsewhere in the hospital. Our newly admitted patients, waiting to be brought to their rooms, were downstairs in the emergency department. Hospital elevators aren’t exactly known for their speed, leaving me all too much time to ponder life and death (literally) in the elevator banks.

It was then that I started to notice something: beds. Empty hospital beds that is, sometimes with sheets on them, pushed into corners, or against the walls. They seemed to me everywhere. Not in the way, not obstructing anything, but a constant presence, tucked away here and there.

In my weary state, I began looking at them with envy – especially the ones with a set of folded sheets lying on top.

“If only I could hop up and take a quick nap,” I thought to myself, and again, and again.

As the thought cycled through my mind, a line of poetry was born, inspired directly by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 19th-century “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Coleridge was writing about deprivation of another sort – thirst. Here the most famous stanza from his poem:

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

That’s exactly how I felt: frustrated by the forbidden ubiquity of beds, and sleep. So as I stood waiting next to the latest set of tempting sheets, in a state of desperate fatigue, I took to whispering the following words under my breath, my modernized incarnation of Coleridge’s legendary verse:

Beds, beds, every where,
And not a place to sleep.

As I did this, I both laughed and sighed inside. I’d then hear the “ding” of the arriving elevator, step into the crowded car, and head to my next destination, thoughts of beds and sleep trailing behind me.


Note: The original version of this essay appeared on the online magazine “The American.” You can read it here.

Narrative medicine: my soul’s monthly nourishment

Once a month, a handful of people gathers in a small conference room on the 14th floor of New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Baker tower for an hour-long narrative medicine group. We discuss a poem or prose piece, sometimes about medicine sometimes not, then write a reflection to a related prompt. The composition of the group varies by who can come that day: librarian, doctor, social worker, medical student, chaplain. Just like our job titles, our experience with interpreting literature, with writing, and with life itself, varies. But that’s exactly what makes the group so rich. With my crazy clerkship schedule, I can’t always make it. But I know when I do, I will leave feeling refreshed, fed. Here is the poem we read last week, along with my written reflection.

“In a landscape of having to repeat”

In a landscape of having to repeat.
Noticing that she does, that he does and so on.
The underlying cause is as absent as rain.
Yet one remembers rain even in its absence and an attendant quiet.
If illusion descends or the very word you’ve been looking for.
He remembers looking at the photograph,
green and gray squares, undefined.
How perfectly ordinary someone says looking at the same thing or
I’d like to get to the bottom of that one.
When it is raining it is raining for all time and then it isn’t
and when she looked at him, as he remembers it, the landscape moved closer
than ever and she did and now he can hardly remember what it was like.
— Martha Ronk, 2004

Prompt: Write about a time you remember looking at a photograph.

When do memories begin? I think I remember being there, tell people I do. Sitting on my pink bicycle in a Minnie Mouse bathing suit, our golden retriever Jake-a-pup reclining on the lawn in the foreground. Flying high on the swingset in my dark blue jeans and the white T-shirt with the pretty blue flowers. Hanging upside down on said swingset, my face flushed red and my eyes half closed. Blowing out candles on the green-frosted caterpillar cake that my mom baked. But are they really memories? Or just pictures in a photo album?