I slap on latex gloves before I put
My hands inside the wound. A hypocrite
Across the room complains that it’s her right
To walk away–to walk away’s her right
As a physician. Lapidary, fine,
My patient’s eyes are overhearing her.
He doesn’t wince. His corner bed inters
Him even now, as she does: he hasn’t died,
But he will. The right to treatment medicine
Denied is all the hollows here: along
His arms, the hungry grooves between the bones
Of ribs. As if her surgeon’s thread through skin–
The rite of obligation overdue–
Could save him now. I close the wound. The drain
Is repositioned. Needles in his veins,
I leave him pleading. There’s too much to do.
“‘Towards Curing AIDS’ was written during medical school after I had taken a year off and spent some time writing poetry with Derek Walcott and Robert Pinksy at Boston University. One of the themes that I became most interested in during my time away from medical school was again the question of empathy and how to form empathic connections with patients when the training process itself was so rigorous and so all-consuming. Another issue that informs that poem in particular is AIDS. I was struggling at the time with my own relation to patients with AIDS and I felt as though I had a lot in common with them, but many of those things that I shared with my patients with AIDS were things that I felt very scared to share about myself, particularly around sexuality issues and ethnicity issues. I felt I needed to portray myself as a white, straight, in-control person and that my other identities didn’t somehow fit in with my role as a physician.
“Another issue that comes into play in the poem, “Towards Curing AIDS,” is the inhumanity I sometimes saw in the way patients were treated, particularly patients with AIDS, but really many patients for whom I cared. I saw myself and some of my peers interacting with patients in a way that really didn’t convey empathy and in fact in some ways was quite hostile. Again there was a real feeling of a personal wound that I suffered from my own treatment of patients in that way. Writing the poem, and particularly some of the formal elements of the poem, do, or at the time anyway, did help me to feel that I was in a sense healing myself, putting some stitches into that wound and really laying my hands again on patients for whom I was not available when I was a medical student until I was able to again reconnect with them through the writing of poetry.”
*”Towards Curing AIDS” used with the permission of Rafael Campo and the publisher of The Other Man Was Me: A Voyage to the New World by Rafael Campo (Houston: Arte Publico Press-University of Houston, 1994); no downloading permitted.
Audio and text of commentary reproduced with the permission of Rafael Campo, 1996.