Off the Shelf, Poetry Thursdays
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Afterthoughts on Palliative Care

His breaths are heavy when we walk in.                                                                                              Abdomen distended:
a large, perfect half-sphere,
like the watermelon slices my dad
shelves into the fridge
on sweaty summer days

I always love
the crunch of the first bite.
My tongue awash with chill:
sweet reprieve
from heavy summer
heat seeping into my skin.

It is freezing here,                                                                                                                                                in this world of dimmed light,
countless cords and abrasive beeps.
The man across the curtain is
cursing, brash and loud.

The man in this bed is quiet:
inhales shallow and irregular.                                                                                                                      His eyes are peering at me
over the round of his belly
as he tells us he is ready to
cease dialysis entirely.

Ready to let his organs 
fail, submerge
in a concoction
of self-made toxins
from his body’s broken filtration.

I imagine him lying alone.
His only company the rattle of his lungs:
Heavy rasps of breath 
in the withdrawn dark
behind closed curtains

A few days later,
my attending will tell me that
none of the man’s four children
ever picked up the phone

He will say that
this patient we saw together                                                                                                                        died last night
abrupt and unprecedented 
much unlike the slow, brittle fade-out
of stopping dialysis.

On my drive home, I will
raise a hand to shield myself
from the brightness
or perhaps, from still thinking about
raspy breaths
the curve of fluid-filled abdomen,
and quiet, hollow acceptance in darkened eyes

It is almost summer here.

As the heaviness of heat
settles once more in my joints,
I will wish that 
before he became an afterthought,                                                                                                                  I could have offered the respite of the first bite
of sliced, cooled watermelon
sweet in the sticky silence
of hot, humid afternoons.

Poetry Thursdays is an initiative that highlights poems by medical students and physicians. If you are interested in contributing or would like to learn more, please contact our editors.

Jennifer Li (3 Posts)

Medical Student Editor and Contributing Writer

Emory University School of Medicine

Jen is a fourth-year medical student at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2016, she graduated from Emory with a Bachelor of Arts in English concentrated in multi-ethnic contemporary American literature and a minor in Music. Jen is passionate about addressing healthcare disparities, highlighting intersectionality and patient-centered care, narrative medicine, and mentorship/education. Aside from medicine, she also enjoys poetry, piano, tennis, indie concerts, Asian-American media, and spending too much time in coffeeshops. After graduation, she aspires to pursue a career in Internal Medicine.