Participants from NJ, NY, TX, KY, PA, ME, MI, and Turkey joined our session to discuss the poem “Chilly in our Gowns” by Maryfrances Wagner, posted below.
Discussion of the text immediately went to the contrast between the first lines and the latter portion of the poem, which evoked not just an intimacy that is then mourned, but also seems to evoke a nostalgia for the past, for time, with the comparing of tomato yields and even the retro-Americana quality to the meal of a burger and a malt.
Time was also noted as weighted in the phrase “no longer,” which not only articulated change and temporality, but a possible shift in identity from doctor and ferryman to “sinking” as something else under the overwhelm of scheduling. Of course mortality was noted as present in the allusion of the ferryman as well, and one participant noticed the coldness of the language, beyond just the chill from the gowns, where the narrator “scuttles” from the room in an alien fashion, and the “laying on of hands” is replaced by others “doing his touching.” Mirroring the physical distance, the doctor is also distracted, mysteriously, by a quick “brown” study that pulls his attention to the window in this new environment.
And yet, another participant noted that the tone of the narrator seems to be sympathetic to the doctor, attempting to see from his viewpoint of “sinking” and being “behind,” even if it does leave the narrator to navigate the “murky waters of fear” more alone. Many participants noted that this points to the systemic issues in medicine, not just with overburdened doctors, but with teams of care fractured from each other and the patient for the sake of efficiency and profit: the “nurse takes my blood pressure” and “the technicians do his touching” and the “receptionist assures me the nurse will call.” These observations illuminated not just what was powerful in the poem, but what is powerful about using poetry, literature, or art as a lens to inspect the complexity of healthcare experiences.
In the shadow of today’s text, we invited everyone to respond to the prompt: “Write about a laying on of hands.” They brought us to a familiar, uneasy place: “I sit in fear, fear of the unknowns…How am I going to continue through this tunnel of uncertainty?”
One writer/reader’s use of alliterative repetition (“poke, press, prod”) caught our attention as relatable patients who “feel dull” and may be “left alone to clean up the mess.” We noticed how a lack of eye contact left the author unable to read the doctor’s thoughts. Certainly there was looking happening, but was there seeing? Knowing?
This theme of being-without-connecting carried through to the third writer who explored the dichotomy between that which is comforting yet pushing boundaries. We appreciated how each writer’s exploration of the tension between agency and attention redefined for us what “touch” means as the laying on of hands could be both active and passive.
Participants are warmly encouraged to share what you wrote below (“Leave a Reply”), to keep the conversation going here, bearing in mind that the blog of course is a public space where confidentiality is not assured.
Also, we would love to learn more about your experience of these sessions, so if you’re able, please take the time to fill out a follow-up survey of one to two quick questions!
Chilly in our Gowns My doctor used to clip articles from our town paper. My fencing victory and engagement photo grinned when he opened my chart. We compared tomato yields, recommended books. He listened to my lungs, my heart, examined my throat, but always the laying on of hands, the patted shoulder before a shot, the outstretched arm rescuing me from the hypoglycemic faint to offer a hamburger and a malt. I could name states he’d toured with his daughters, night classes he took on the Middle East. Now, his nurse takes my blood pressure and asks if I think it will rain. She writes symptoms on my chart. My doctor no longer sits, one arm resting on his knee, to ask if I’m still taking calcium, drinking water. He looks out the window, a quick brown study he doesn’t share. He is behind, his waiting room sinking under sore throats, a broken toe, a stitchable biking accident. He writes prescriptions, orders tests, has technicians do his touching. He rushes off to others, waiting chilly in their gowns. I scuttle out one door as he closes another, his muffled voice an instant replay. The receptionist assures me the nurse will call, my doctor no longer my ferryman across fear’s murky water. Maryfrances Wagner From Red Silk The Mid-America Press 1999 https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/maryfrances_wagner