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Poetry and Medicine
December 12, 2012

The Second Act

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to

Author Affiliation: Department of Preventive Medicine, State University of New York at Stony Brook (

JAMA. 2012;308(22):2316. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.13273

My first student with cancer wasn't a star
by any means. He stood out from the rest
by missing sixteen of twenty-four
on the pop quiz about cardiac murmurs.
He examined a patient for an hour,
then flurried in with disconnected notes
and scraps of thought. No wonder he fell off
after a few months—I imagined
diet, stress, depression. When he didn't
show up after the break, I figured
he’d discovered his mistake, dropped out.
February came. And March. On the first of May,
he appeared at my desk, greenish, gaunt,
and bald. Fingering an Irish cap,
he apologized for keeping Wintrobe’s
Diseases of the Blood so long and promised
to return it soon. His eyes, anchored
to the plastic Yoda beside my phone,
bobbed up to mine each time he spoke.
He’d come to terms with his sarcoma.
But then I failed the chemo, he chuckled,
a little irony, don't you think?
When he scooted closer, I couldn't help
but see the scapular of the Sacred Heart,
green for hope, hanging around his neck.
I’ll start attending class as often as I can,
he said. And work all summer to make up.
My first student with cancer's face
hovered uncomfortably close when he asked,
Please tell them that my tumor's gone.
I couldn't stand my classmates' pity.

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