I should have been keeping vigil
but slept while tumor entwined artery
and vein, nourished while it devoured
her blood its blood,
thriving in the exchange.
Failure feeds obsession,
taken root in me this woman
not yet forty, a trellis of ribs counting
on false hope. I remember
her with hair flowing curly brunette.
Guilt rewinds and replays,
replays then rewinds, cannot be unplugged.
Missteps miscues rehashed retraced
scrubbed rescrubbed there are stains
on my white coat.
As a physician I have the privilege of listening to stories of emotional and physical suffering which allow me to enter my patients’ worlds and give voice to their struggles in the form of poetry. Poetry also allows us to confront our own limitations as physicians by acknowledging the impact that our errors and failures may have on our patients as well as our own psyche.
“Kudzu” tells the story of a young woman who developed colon cancer while under my care and how I missed the warning signs which could have led to the earlier detection of her cancer. The poem expresses the impact of watching her deteriorate physically as she suffered due to the cancer and side effects of treatment.
“Kudzu” expresses the range of emotions we feel when confronting our shortcomings as physicians: feelings of humility, guilt, sorrow, failure. And like the hearty vines that engulf the surrounding vegetation, this incident claimed two victims – my patient and myself as I grappled and struggled with the implications of my error and the indelible stain it has left on me as a physician.