In her poem, "Dehiscence," Amy Haddad speaks in the voice of a nurse tending a suffering patient. The patient has "come unstitched," and, seen through the nurse's eyes, the patient's wounds are devastating: fistulas "connect bowel, liver, pancreas"; the "stench is overwhelming," telling everyone, caregiver and patient alike, that medical science has failed, that no more can be done.

Moved by her patient's suffering and her own inability to help, the nurse does what she can. She washes the patient, changes the soiled sheets, removes the dirty dressings and replaces them with clean gauze and tape. "Done," she says. Stepping back, looking from a distance, she can no longer see the patient's wounds. She "is caught," as all caregivers have been at one time or another, in "the illusion" of the patient's "wholeness."


This poem works on many levels. The sensual imagery--the details of what the nurse sees, touches, smells--effectively and simply portrays both the patient's suffering and embarrassment and the nurse's despair at the limitations of medical and nursing science. In a very few lines, the author gives us a vivid, unforgettable portrait not only of a patient ravaged by disease, but also of a caregiver haunted by her clinical limitations.

The beauty of the poem comes in the second stanza when, no longer able to rely on science and unable to bear "the truth," the nurse simply cleans the patient up. Nothing high tech, no fancy medicines, just her gentle ministrations. Since she can give the patient nothing else, she gives "the competence and comfort" of her touch.

The one-word line, "Done," signifies that everything is finished: the nurse's bathing and turning of the patient, the doctors' attempts to heal, the patient's chance for recovery. The poem's final two lines, "For a few pristine moments, we allow ourselves / to be caught in the illusion of your wholeness," are ironic as well as hopeful: nurse and patient together, neither of them fooled, but both of them, at least for now, willing to pretend they might hold death at bay.

Primary Source

Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses


Univ. of Iowa Press

Place Published

Iowa City




Cortney Davis & Judy Schaefer