A Boston E.R. Doctor's Poem About the Coronavirus

Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell had just come off back-to-back work shifts in the emergency room at Boston Medical Center last week and was not sure how to think about what she had experienced. In almost three decades as an emergency physician, she, like her colleagues, was used to feeling invincible. She had regularly treated patients facing horrific trauma. She had grabbed gloves and rushed toward the smoke while working during the Boston Marathon bombing.

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But as the coronavirus began to explode on the East Coast, the fear and anxiety in her emergency department was something entirely new. “This feels for the very first time there is actually a threat to me as a physician,” Dr. Mitchell said. “The nurses feel the same way.”

In hospitals across the country, the lack of widespread testing and the severe shortage of protective gear have left health care workers fretting for their own safety, and for the public’s. The virus is as invisible as it is dangerous. “You can’t see it, and you don’t know what is going to happen,” Dr. Mitchell said.

One recent morning after a long shift in the E.R., Dr. Mitchell took a walk in her neighborhood and noticed a daffodil blooming, a reminder of spring’s renewal. It contrasted with so much in the landscape around her that had changed — neighbors closeted behind closed doors, the protective armor she had to wear to work, all the uncertainty in the air.

After her walk, Dr. Mitchell sat down and wrote a poem.

She had been turning to writing for years, publishing essays in the Annals of Emergency Medicine and at times reading poetry to the residents she helps trains. Poetry, Dr. Mitchell said, allows doctors to become better listeners. “It speaks to the art of medicine,” she said, “versus the science of medicine.”

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The Apocalypse

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell

This is the apocalypse
A daffodil has poked its head up
from the dirt and opened
sunny arms to bluer skies
yet I am filled with
dark and anxious dread
as theaters close as travel ends and
grocery stores display their empty rows
where toilet paper liquid bleach
and bags of flour stood in upright ranks.

My stomach twists and fingers shake
as I prepare to work the battleground
the place I’ve always loved and felt at home
is now a field of droplets sprayed across a room
or lurking on a handle or a sink to find their way
inside our trusting hands or mouths or eyes
the ones that touch you when you’re sick
speak soothing words and seek the answer to your pain.

This is the apocalypse
as spring begins again
and brightly colored flowers
deploy in my back yard
the neighbors walk their dogs
and march along the quiet streets
I stretch my purple gloves on steady hands
I tie my yellow gown behind my back
my hair inside a blue bouffant
my mouth and nose and eyes are
still and calm inside their waiting shields.
This is the apocalypse.

Have you felt moved to poetry by the coronavirus crisis? We’d like to hear your favorite verses in the comments.

Additional Image Credit: Louie Schwartzberg/Getty Images

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