Third-year medical student shares his writing for World Poetry Day
AJ Winer wrote “In Chains” about his experience treating an incarcerated patient
March 21, 2022 — AJ Winer, a third-year medical student at the University of Florida College of Medicine, has used writing as a creative outlet since middle school.
“Writing has given me that skill of trying to better grasp what I’m feeling and understand it,” said Winer, who is interested in pursuing a career in internal medicine. “It’s very cathartic. It can really help with bringing some light out of the darkness and some hope out of whatever disparity or despair there is around.”
After treating an incarcerated patient during one of his rotations during medical school, he said he was shocked to see another human’s wrists and ankles bound and frustrated by how difficult it made it to create an atmosphere of trust where the patient could feel comfortable.
“It just really stuck with me, and I never really discussed it with anyone,” said Winer, sharing that he struggled with those feelings for a month before channeling them into the poem “In Chains.”
“With rotations, it’s been so much more than just learning how to treat and diagnose; It’s really been about learning how to understand each patient’s social conditions and barriers to health,” Winer said. “You’re now seeing not just disease but also the struggles your patients face outside of their medical problems, some of which are compounded by their social conditions.
Here, we share his work for World Poetry Day 2022, a celebration of linguistic diversity and expression first adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1999.
Winer’s poem will also be included in the print and online edition of a new literary magazine that will launch in April. Created by members of the Chapman Society, the UF College of Medicine’s chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, the magazine will feature submissions from UF medical students, residents and faculty.
“In Chains” by AJ Winer
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.