This is part of the Medical Humanities Series on Op-Med, which showcases creative work by our members. Do you have a poem, short story, creative nonfiction or visual art piece related to medicine that you’d like to share with the community? Send it to us here.
"A Return Home"
I walk into her room and she tries to be spritely,
“I’m doing great, my pain is an 8/10 today!”
even as her eyes glisten.
She waves at me,
her hands swollen almost as round as a pufferfish.
She gives me a half-smile,
face swollen from radiated lymph nodes.
I wonder, what does it mean to live
in 8/10 pain, on the better days,
and still manage a half-smile?
She wishes her life's choices weren't between
Chemo or carrot juice
Radiation or radish juice
Clinical trials or CAR-T therapy
Sleep or support groups
She wishes not to...
breathe the stale hospital air,
see butterfly needles but true butterflies emerging from chrysalis in her daffodil garden,
wear triple lumen catheters and nasal cannulas like carefully chosen accessories,
rock a lacy livedo reticularis but real lace, the kind she meant to have on her wedding dress,
And not to have bruised blotches on her forearms and blood clots in her legs,
all the while thinned tears flow freely,
To feel that it’s not woman versus Nature, woman versus mortality,
But woman in Nature, as part of Nature,
where death is the natural entropic progression of life,
such that her life’s end is seen simply as a homecoming–
A return to Nature, a return home.
An Interview with the Poet
What was your inspiration? Did other creative works, if any, influence your creation of this poem?
My long-term favorite poets include Louise Gluck, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Maya Angelou. From these wonderful women I learned the power of poems that have an obvious emotional gut punch as a "take-away," but also of other poems that are more abstract, vague, and require more diligence and attention to penetrate their mystery. More recently, I’ve been reading more of Wendell Berry’s works — my favorite at the moment is Our Real Work, as well as Jane Hirshfield's. I love being able to return to the comforts and familiarity of re-reading old favorite poems while continuing to discover new ones.
How long have you been writing poetry? What got you started?
I’ve only recently begun writing. Part of this is because since most of my works are about medicine, writing has very much become a therapeutic process as I've become more active in the clinical space, allowing me to process and potentially to lend me with insights on current patients.
Why did you choose poetry? What interests you about it?
I find poetry so special because of the intentionality and care with which each word is chosen. I pick the language I use carefully, experimenting with different language to present the same experience from another perspective (or with different word choices or different metaphors) and trialing alternative methods of conveying my intended content. Ultimately, this gives me more time and space for iterative reflections.
How does this poem relate to your medical practice?
I often hear people using metaphors of war when referring to a person’s journey with cancer: for example, “battling cancer” and the notion that one is going to beat it. While I understand that the underlying sentiment behind these statements is one of motivation and mobilization of internal strength, I wanted to flip that narrative upside down and highlight the exhaustion of the journey. I wanted to acknowledge that “winning the war” can look different: it can be a peaceful acceptance of the circumstances and welcoming (without glorifying) death and nature's processes. As a medical team, I believe the real way we can help patients is by helping them navigate choices according to their own values, and meeting them where they're at, instead of opposing mortality at any cost.
Tulsi Patel is a third-year MD/MPH student at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She graduated from Columbia University in 2019 with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience.
Image by Jorm Sangsorn / GettyImages