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Poetry and Medicine
October 25, 2016


Author Affiliations
  • 1University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville

Copyright 2016 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. 2016;316(16):1718. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8892

He’s wearing oxygen over pajamas
and smoking a cigarette while claiming
that if it was safe to smoke in the engine room
of a World War Two destroyer
then it is safe to smoke near oxygen
flowing two liters every minute.
When my two years of pre-med chemistry
suggest his hot air chemistry’s at sea,
he quotes Alexander Pope
on how a little knowledge is dangerous.
While he catches his breath I quote Pope
on bias and pride. Then he quotes Pope
on error and forgiveness. After we’ve run out of Pope
but still on the subject of safety, he shows me the gun
in the bedside table drawer, there in easy reach,
safety on, self-defense he wants me to know.
I get to see the gun at every visit.
What’s a bed doing in a sitting room?
This is his favorite subject we’ve agreed
to disagree on. Just lying there I answer.
I push the button that changes lying to sitting.
He pushes the button that lets him sit where he prefers.
We sip the brandy he’s so proud of.
I visit this patient once a month at cocktail hour,
and once a month he doesn’t drink alone.
The fading light is good for slowing down in.
I act as if I’m not in any rush.
He acts as if he’s ready for what’s next.