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The Poetic Intimacy Of Administering Anesthesia

Sara Wong for NPR

According to Audrey Shafer, there is something profound in the moment a patient wakes up from surgery.

She would know — she's an anesthesiologist. She's responsible for people when they are at their most vulnerable: unconscious, unable to breathe on their own or even blink their eyes.

As a result, Shafer says, a kind of intimate trust forms between her and her patients. It's this closeness that moves her to write poetry about medicine.

Shafer is an anesthesiologist and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. She directs a program called Medicine and the Muse, which combines the arts, including poetry, with the practice of medicine. Her poetry has appeared in medical journals and poetry anthologies.

Poetry, she says, is a natural means of translating the murkiness of what happens to the brain under anesthesia.

"Anesthesiologists tend to be viewed as more knob-and-dial oriented than people-oriented," she says. But, Shafer argues, that couldn't be further from the truth. When patients finally come out of surgery, she's one of the first people to welcome them back to their conscious experience of the world.

"They can be quite grateful right at that moment they realize 'I've woken up. The surgery is done. I'm OK. I'm back.'" Shafer says. "The anesthesiologist gets to witness that moment."

Falling Fifth: The Neurosurgery Patient and the Anesthesiologist

(Based on Robert Schumann's Third String Quartet, Movement 1)

By Audrey Shafer

We meet in the holding room; a paper dress covers your tattoos

At any moment, your craze of fragile vessels

could spill, fill the sea cave cradling your mind

Your wife holds your hand until it is time for us to go

I guide you as you blow through a straw

swimming across your long day of surgery

Five hours, and five more: surgeons untangle

a crevice of your brain, clamp the feeder, reassemble your skull

You re-surface, blinking like a newborn

ride in your wide white boat to intensive care;

nurses and doctors give and take report

you speak but I do not understand

Hhhh-m you say, and louder Hhhh-m!

Head? I ask Hurt? Hand? Heart? Does your chest hurt?

I am wrong and wrong again--

You smile and try once more:



Hug you? I repeat, and the entire team turns

to stare silently:

I lean over wires, bandages, the spaghetti of tubes, the upright side rail

and give a most awkward hug

The team resumes its buzz: monitors bleep, pagers bark,

phones ring, keyboards clack, bellows wheeze, alarms blurt

the unit dins in unscored discord

But for two notes, harmony presided over all--

in a falling fifth, a two-toned sigh, you told me you know;

you know you landed on the warm sands of recovery:



April is National Poetry Month, and Shots is exploring medicine in poetry through the words of doctors, patients and health care workers. The series is a collaboration with Pulse: Voices Through The Heart Of Medicine, a platform that publishes personal stories of illness and healing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.