“All Eyes on Me, I Had to Decide”

A Poem & Conversation with Issam Koleilat, MD

This is part of the Medical Humanities Series on Op-Med, which showcases visual and literary art by our members. Do you have a poem or visual art piece you’d like to share with the community? Submit your piece here.

Illustration by April Brust

Asking For My First Instrument

It was a fateful day my intern year
Halfway through and called to hear
How they needed me in that OR
To debride a foot that wasn’t far
From amputation

I ran to help, to save his foot
Toes long gone, turned to soot.
Scrubbing hard, I was ready
The fellow told me, “Just be steady:
Scrape it and make it clean.”

This chance I took to be a man.
The fellow ran after an aortic scan.
So in I went and gloved and gowned,
The room fell quiet — I looked around.
They were looking at me.

In my haste to be a man
I forgot I’d need to lead this clan
I called time-out, we read the name
I started to cut and the bleeding came
Like it wouldn’t stop.

All eyes on me, I had to decide
What to do, or would I just cry
That’s what I wanted to truly do.
But now the surgeon, I had to push through.
I packed and stitched and used cautery.

They pushed me to finish, I’m glad for it
I could’ve spent the day in debridement
But finally controlled, we wrapped the wound,
Extubated, brought him out of that room.
I breathed a sigh of relief.

In the end, without confabulation
I flew solo, as could be seen
But the surgeon’s fear, it comes free
Reminding against the drape’s backdrop
You have to be ready for any eventuality
And that some days, growth requires grief.

What inspired this piece?

I have thought about that day extensively. It was the seventh or eighth month of my intern year, but it was the first time I had ever been the most senior person in the OR, or the surgeon or “in charge” if you will. It was really a turning point during my training; a moment of clarity, awakening and self-discovery. I knew the techs and circulating nurses had more experience in the OR and they probably could’ve done that debridement themselves, but I appreciate their respect as they waited for my lead, waited for me to proceed, and finally gently guided me as I made intraoperative decisions.

Why did you choose poetry for this topic?

I enjoy both prose and poetry for different reasons. Here, I favored the ability of structural changes and rhyme in a poem to convey emotion, the atmosphere of the situation, and the inner thoughts all in a small space, just as the case itself was an amalgamation for me of emotion, thoughts, and events that all happened in a relatively short period of time. It just “felt right.”

How long have you been writing poetry? How did you get into it and have you published any other pieces in the past?

As the son of Arab immigrants, I think the importance of literature and poetry, both in Arabic but other languages also, and its value has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents of course have always pushed me to broaden my horizons. Specifically though, I’ve been writing poetry, prose and scientific writing since high school. I think it was my 10th grade English teacher Mrs. Lord-Olson that may have first kindled my interest in literature and writing. Certainly I must give thanks to my AP English teacher Mrs. Pole who also pushed me. That was definitely the stimulus for me to take a handful of English classes in college including Creative Writing — Poetry, which was absolutely fantastic. I haven’t ever had anything published previously, but I’ve never really tried either. I am actually in the process of beginning a collection of poems that I do hope to publish.

Issam Koleilat, MD is a vascular surgeon at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY. He is also the proud father of a wonderfully curious five-year-old daughter and bright-eyed five-month-old son, and the husband of a breast cancer genetic epidemiologist. He enjoys traveling with his family, and as the kids get older hopes they will hike, ride horses and rock-climb more.

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