Alexander and his Doctor, about 1648-9, Eustache Le Sueur
According to classical anecdote, Alexander the Great suffered from mysterious maladies and from his own mystique. No one dared to treat him for fear that a bad outcome would doom the would-be healer to certain persecution by Alexander’s wildly solicitous minions. Finally, Phillip, Alexander’s physician, frustrated by the young king’s decline, offered care in the form of a salubrious potion. But a general had already impugned Philip in a letter to Alexander, which claimed Philip to be acting seditiously on behalf of Alexander’s Persian enemies, and not to be trusted. Despite this warning, Alexander boldly drank the medicine, as he did so, handing the letter to Philip to read.
In the painting, Philip stands above a recumbent Alexander, as the doctor-patient relationship would demand. But Alexander’s broad chest and raised eyes reveal his power, while Philip’s stooped posture and frown expose the frailty of his position. The painting reveals, perhaps unwittingly, the vital duality of the relationship, each risking himself, proffering his full commitment to the other. Here the physician assumes the role of servant rather than patriarch, though his experience and wisdom are evident.
It is now a common practice for first year medical students to take part in a ceremony honoring the donors of cadavers used in dissection for the teaching of anatomy. The manner of the students’ participation is up to them; the reading of poetry, including original poems is not uncommon.
Here is such a poem by Fiona Horgan, reprinted from Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.
Today’s session begins just as those gone by.
As my labmates begin to unfurl the gauze and commence our exploring,
instinctively, but unbeknownst to the others,
I am quick to assume my self-appointed duty of rewrapping,
carefully ensuring that her hands are not exposed.
Is this naïve, knowing that today would come
and I would have to spend my entire afternoon focused on them?
And why, after so many hours with her,
so many delicate procedures,
does looking at her hands still stir unparalleled emotion in me?
“Trace the radial artery . . .”
I only see hands that still possess the pallor of life,
nails bearing the remnants of rose-colored polish.
Did a loved one tenderly paint them?
And did they hold her hands as she faded from this life?
I search for her pulse.
“Divide the transverse carpal ligament . . .”
Isee my grandmother’s hands.
Hands that expertly smoothed wrinkled sheets.
Hands that pressed coins to buy sweets into her grandchildren’s eager palms.
Hands that wore a symbol of my grandparents’ love for 56 years.
I trace the fine lines on her palms.
“Examine the thenar muscles . . .”
I see my mother’s hands.
Hands that nurture children when they are sick.
Hands that dance along piano keys.
Hands that feed and clothe the homeless.
I smooth her wrinkled skin.
“Identify the tendons of the superficial and deep digital flexors . . .”
I look at my hands alongside hers.
They are the tool with which I will first touch my future patients.
Each time I lay my hands on those I hope to heal,
I will remember hers.
I reach out and fully grasp her hands.
(From: The 2008 Anatomy Ceremony: Voices, Letter, Poems
Yale J Biol Med. 2009 March; 82(1): 41–46)
When I get off the phone with my wife I think
Of DNA, the great lengths that don’t matter,
That even its magniloquent scholars call “junk,”
So much that if you listened to the language
Of life you’d hear the ums between words, confabulation,
What we say when we’ve nothing to say,
As when she calls at lunch and asks How are things?
And I claim, Fine, as I would with the building
In flames. We ping pong pleasantries for five minutes
Then I return to putting out the day’s fires
Only now pondering lives we spend mostly
Apart just to make enough to have a life,
Something like divorce with marriage spliced in
Mornings and nights. I.e. she’s a stranger
And how do I know she’s not disbursing government
Secrets in coded want ads, begging exegesis
From her cult’s high priest, or running a house
Of ill repute by the shipyard? Mingling
Our loose strands, we become a stranger strangeness
Though scientists have begun to guess
At the hidden purpose in those stretches
Of fallow chromosome they also call introns,
A refreshingly arcane and important name
I attach to this break I take from a day
That started as the pieces we call hours
And put together by staying whole. The part
Where the phone rings isn’t the story’s moral,
Just abiding distraction, as if Sisyphus let go
Of the stone whose rolling went unnoticed
As he flipped open his cell and told his wife
What would bore anyone else, scientists
For instance studying mating rituals in fruit flies,
Or G-men eavesdropping through a wall.
But such twaddle sufficiently scrutinized turns out
To be a cipher for life, itself the redundant
Though universal meaning, as if at the most
Intimate level, nothing is everything.