First, do no harm, but to harm not I must first see
With swift breath, I begin.
You, silent teacher, my new textbook
Your skin the cover I crack open.
Touching scalpel to spine, slitting open your back
Peeling fascia from skin and muscles from bones
Parting majors from minors,
Opening worlds within you,
The courses your vessels forged
Like rivers through mountains,
The organs budded and sheaths parted
Many ages ago in the universe womb.
They call you my first patient.
I feel your too-curved spine,
The black spots in your lungs
Your knobby thumb joints
I name these things — scoliosis, silicosis, arthritis —
as I shall many times again.
But you, dear teacher, reveal more than diagnoses
The way pectoralis strips attach too soon to ribs,
The way median nerve courses just so, down to thumb
Sending those little twitches and twinges
The sensations, subclinical, you noticed, or not
Uttered, or not
But existed even so.
And now I tell you
The revelations which no other could
The secrets of your deepest corners
That which made yourself you
(Though you never saw them, they were always yours.)
Thank you, Mary, I whisper
Full of grace for me
But where do I whisper?
To the ears that lent attention, or the eyes that understood?
To the hands that cradled, or the feet that danced?
Shall I whisper to this flesh and these bones
That carried all you were through a century
of joys, fears, memories and plans?
Or maybe I whisper
To your soul resting
In that dimension called heaven,
Free from flesh which entraps
And pain which distracts?
Perhaps I whisper
Backwards in time
To the moments you departed
Choosing these nascent hands
Worthy of your trust.
Oh, bless these hands
Palms up, to embrace, this elaborate gift.
Poetry Thursdays is a weekly newsletter that highlights poems by medical students and physicians. This initiative is led by Slavena Salve Nissan at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. If you are interested in contributing, please contact Slavena.