They Didn’t Teach Me How to Swim in This

I feel helpless,
for the first time,
like I’m spiraling downward; drowning.

I spent years training to be able
to spot all the health effects
of an untreated pulmonary embolism.

I made the right diagnosis.
The patient left with a treatment plan.
But he returned, weeks later, much worse.

He couldn’t afford the blood thinners he needed.
We spent hours with social workers, case workers,
pharmacists, and still

We failed him. As a healthcare system.

It was all preventable.

I learned how to diagnose disease, but not
how to treat a broken society.
Or a broken healthcare system, plagued by disparity.

They didn’t teach me how to swim in THIS.
How am I supposed to help…to doctor,
when I can barely keep my head above water?

Notes from the interview that inspired this poem:

This woman was a medical resident. She had just finished a three-week rotation that left her feeling helpless and burned out, for the first time. Throughout her training, she’d often felt tired, but she’d always felt the time spent was productive, until this rotation. She enjoyed the patients she cared for, and was interested in their cases, but she saw how the system was failing patients. At times, it was insurance refusing to cover necessary medications. Or the inability of some patients to pay for the rehabilitation support they needed. She knew what needed to be done, but wasn’t able to see the treatments through because of non-clinical factors out of her control. “We spend hours meeting with the social workers, case workers, and pharmacists. Sometimes it feels like it’s all pointless as it doesn’t translate to patients getting what they need,” she said. “I feel like I’m treading water, helpless, almost drowning.” She had been confronted with disparity in a way she’d never witnessed first-hand. She shared a story about one patient that was particularly disheartening to her. “We, as a healthcare system, failed him,” she said. “Frustrated isn’t even the right word; I feel helpless, hopeless–this isn’t what I was trained to do.”

Interviewee: Anonymous, Physician
Listener Poet: Jenny Hegland

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