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Poetry and Medicine
June 1, 2011


Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to jamapoems@jama-archives.org.

Author Affiliation: Department of Family Medicine, Kaiser Permanente, Santa Rosa, California (matthew.n.joseph@kp.org).

JAMA. 2011;305(21):2151. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.653

The gun fires, the clinic starts, and you are off— 
from room to room you ride the rails
of their pain, their fear, confusion, ire,
their need for a face that will not close
at the telling of their secret shame, a space
to cry into, for once, at last.
Some days burn with need.
You start in flame and end in ash,
and you are nothing at the close
but a shadow of your long-ago intention
to hold the broken pieces of a soul
and try to make them whole again. Some days are nothing
but ground glass across which you kabuki dance, miming
feelings you do not have
for an audience you do not want.
And then it happens. 
A patient crumbles before you, and as you try to catch her
a piece of you falls to mingle with her scattered shards.
A corner of you dies as they are dying.
Or you see them turn away from scars
they carved for years in their weak flesh,
shedding the past like reptile skin,
making of their lives
a testament to what can be, to how we change,
and you walk away the stronger
for having seen and touched them.
You cannot make them whole—of course, you know now
that you never could—but maybe
it is all they need from you,
to fall a bit when they fall,
to rise when they take flight,
simply, in the end, to know that each of you
belongs a little to the other.
Sometimes, it is what you need,
all you need, at the end of the longest day,
holding your own broken pieces
in tired, trembling hands,
to rise from your ashes,
to remember who you once were,
who you are.

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