Gram-positive cocci in chains.
The only chains I had seen in school.
Two years sheltered to study rooms, naïveté a forte.
Full of health and opportunity, expected to empathize with the contrary.
Year three, embarking on the real world.
No longer shielded by screens and textbooks.
They now move and exist, can be touched, smelled, felt.
They have jobs, families, stories – they are more.
No longer merely absorbing information, but experience and understanding.
To go out to the real world – the next great teachers, physicians, and leaders.
But how could I understand.
“Prisoner”, was how you were introduced.
Before even your name or your terminal diagnosis.
I was uneasy – there was never a lesson on this.
And why should there be?
Just another patient, but in chains.
Cuffs, beside hospital band, beside poking ribs.
Withered hands, chained to legs, chained to bed.
Officer at bedside, observing you, observing me.
I introduced myself devotedly – you looked off apathetically – wishing, hoping, waiting?
I worked to establish rapport, find commonalities, to understand – how could I?
“Are you in any pain?” “No.” “Are your wrists sore?” “Yes.”
Why even ask I wondered, what could I do?
Still, you politely thank me, look out the window at the outside air you could not feel.
I move your chains to listen to your heart.
Clink – Metal against metal, my stethoscope hit a link.
“My apologies” – he understood what I really meant.
Chained to his fate: death – hastened by metastatic cancer – alone in shackles.
I wondered for him what was worst.
Finish rounds, my notes – return to my dorm unfettered.
I look at my wrists, ankles; I exhale to rid the soreness I feel for you.
I toss and turn, restless, unable to ignore.
Each morning the same hello, question, clink, question, goodbye – between, I try to ask about your life.
A son, husband, father, brother – you are more – I want you to know that.
One day you became hypernatremic. No one knew why. “Mets to the brain?” “Diabetes insipidus?”
More simply, you could not reach to drink your bedside water, and none of us saw nor thought of that.
I sat at bedside, watching closely as you gulped water from the grey jug in my free hands.
Your silver eyes, silver beard, silver cuffs – bound to exist, not live.
In that moment, I knew not your past choices, nor did I care.
I hoped meekly you felt free of judgement – I hoped you could trust me.
Your sodium improved, your wrist soreness did not.
You developed an infection, and we caught it, fortunately – at least we did something.
Culture results came back: gram-positive cocci in chains.
We treated you, freed you of infection.
But there you lay
Awaiting return to prison, just another patient, in chains.