"...everything known and unknown for longer than I have searched or breathed, the infinity of my ignorance."
Any Good Poem
Richard Berlin, MD, shares his poem "What I Love," which is featured in the August 2023 issue of Psychiatric Times.
What I Love
-after Stephen Dunn
I love my long white coat, belted in the back,
deep pockets filled with tourniquet, tuning fork,
reflex hammer and pens; the pride of uniform
grown from short white to long blue and long gray,
until finally, long white and arrival as Chief,
each coat earned with tears and blood on my sleeves.
I love the purity of white,
as if the great whale’s strength and mystery
and power surround my body,
the way each patient, even the most demented,
knows white coat means doctor.
I love the library’s old book smell
and a new text’s clean gloss,
the endless flow of journals, new data
that seem so solid before the ground moves
and grand theories yield to a few humble facts;
the miracle of the internet and “Up to Date,”
everything known and unknown
for longer than I have searched or breathed,
the infinity of my ignorance.
I love the big words and their sounds:
Serratia, Pseudomonas, choreoathetosis,
how words shrink to CATS and SPECTS,
crits and Cipro and adenoCA,
the illusion: we control by naming.
And I would love the words even more
if I did not know their meanings,
the abbreviated way we dismiss people
as left hemis, diabetics, schizophrenics,
my shame for comfort I have stolen
beneath a word’s cool shadow.
I love a stethoscope draped around my neck
casual as a towel at poolside,
my swoon for our tools: Queen’s Square hammer,
ophthalmoscope, soundings my hands percuss,
weathermap shadows on ultrasound,
a cardiogram’s sharp repetition,
the rolling sea in fathoms of brain waves.
Yet the tools I love most are my eyes
that measure in an instant, how sick, how well.
I love a nurse who knows the doses,
the patient and family’s story,
moments in crisis we become each other’s hands,
teamwork that appears sudden as a star.
I love the banter, the jokes, the sexual charge
so alive in the constant presence of death.
And because I am a hatmaker’s son
I love a nurse’s white winged cap.
I love to pretend I’ve saved a life
though I know it’s just a postponement
before pronouncement and suffering’s end
when I bend, humble and yielding.
I love the drama, keeping cool in crisis,
giving good advice,
the way each story shines a beam of humor
if I can place my mind at a certain angle,
the laughter that lets me go on.
I love my patients, not as a group, but one by one,
their varieties of trust below the surface,
permission to ask about blood and bowel movements,
lives and loves, how they come with their own yearning
questions I answer by listening without judgment,
the miracle that listening is sometimes enough.
I love to come home to my orchard when apples are ripe,
watch my daughter slice garlic
and my wife arrange lilies in a vase,
the vacation surprise that people can eat and pee,
walk without walkers or an IV pole.
And I love to take off my white coat, the stethoscope,
forget the big words and listening’s weight,
all the sounds and smells and tests
of this life I have chosen,
and remember the white and bloodless world I knew
before I fell in love.
Dr Berlin has been writing a poem about his experience of being a doctor every month for the past 25 years in Psychiatric Times® in a column called “Poetry of the Times.” He is instructor in psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts. His latest book is Freud on My Couch.