It’ve been two years since I wrote the poem below. I remember being in my immunology class during the second quarter of medical school, listening as our instructor talked about anaphylaxis. The emotions it evoked later found their way into written words. I’ve shared this poem a few times in different ways–first in my creative writing class, later in our medical student journal–but I haven’t revisited it in at least a year.
A lot has changed in the course of that time, even if I didn’t see it happening. Perhaps I haven’t paused and looked back often enough, to see how far I’ve come since the beginning of my journey into medicine. I’m almost done with my third year now, and sometimes I forget just how much I’ve learned since I began. I think it is that way for many of us, actually. We live with ourselves 24/7, and it makes it difficult to see ourselves grow because it happens so gradually. But grow we do.
This poem looks back to a time when I was seven years old, and my brother (who was a toddler at the time) went into anaphylactic shock after tasting peanut butter.
He just turned 19 years old this January, and I turned 26.
To this day, I’m thankful for the medicine that saved him.
Dim lecture hall and early morning and I am sitting in the seat I always take, watching the words flashing against the wall. Pruritus. Urticaria. Angioedema.
Immunoglobulins, the E isotype, not the A isotype…so many letters to keep straight.
I am a child again, tracing out the alphabet, learning to spell like when you were born and I had to remember to write your name with an “a” two letters from the end, not an “e.” A child again learning my ABCs: airway, breathing, cardiac. Treatment includes epinephrine.
And suddenly, we are children again.
Flashes of images in my mind, a moment remembered, transected from the whole.
The stroller with its small wheels, and you in it, and Mom bending over to give you a bite of our sandwich because you are hungry on that sunny walk in the park, and we are carefree.
So ordinary, the child and the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the young family paused in time on the sidewalk.
And then the next image, more sound than sight: your sneeze, and the worry in Mom’s voice.
And then you buckled in the car seat and Grandpa getting into the car beside you and Mom rushing because you have to go to the emergency room. An impression of puffiness, of you and your elfin ears and fine brown hair and a body suddenly too full of that which should have been life.
An empty driveway, lonesome gray against the sky.
You came back—you came back to us before your lungs could squeeze out the last thin tendrils of your breath and the surging current of medicine drew your tiny boat back from a shore we could not reach.
And I am the medical student in the lecture hall caring about the mechanism of epinephrine, and I am the sister caring about nothing other than that you came back.