Doctor Poets & Other Healers: Covid in Their Own Words
Editors: Thelma T. Reyna, Frank L. Meyskens, Jr., Johanna Shapiro
41 Poems ~ 10 Personal Essays ~ 130 Pages
Price: $18.95
Publisher: Golden Foothills Press
ISBN: 978-1-7372481-0-1
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Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

About life, poet-physician John Keats wrote: “Nothing ever becomes real till it is ex-perienced.” It is fair to say that Keats (1795-1821), himself dogged by illness (tuberculosis) throughout his short life, was conflating life and poetry. As the poems and essays contained in this volume demonstrate, poetry is a conduit for experience. As co-editor Thelma T. Reyna avers in her preface, “Let us listen to their voices. Let us hear their broken hearts and see their tears.”

Let us hear, indeed. During this season of immense suffering I felt the pathos expressed in these poems and essays. Few would deny that America and the world are only now emerging from a scourge we pray will not return. Division, uncertainty, and skepticism have wrapped America in a cloak of cynicism. If there is one thing that struck me about Doctor Poets & Other Healers, it is that each of these frontline soldiers care about people. They are not about political division. They are not about blame-placing. They are about healing.

What They Witnessed

“In Praise of Home School,” by Anna Dunlap, highlights one of Covid-19’s most controversial outcomes. An excerpt:

        Some say shelter-at-home is a wasteland
        of boredom bathed in cathode rays
        of ruminating on things long hid–
        slackened bonds of coupledom,
        slender reeds of habit,
        how family depletes us.

Dunlap’s poem develops the grim reality of isolation. She gives a rabbit social distance as she walks. She reflects on her childhood … when “time / was a pleasure to kill–swaying / in a hammock of faded quilts.” This wise poem delivers an in-depth message that “home-schooled” this reviewer’s heart. Don’t miss this one.

“Life from the Other Side of the Tray,” by Pamela Shea, moves from the “intrigue” she once knew as an OR medical assistant to the melancholy that now, her husband, “who usually stands tall / now looks small on the table, pale and barely breathing.” Shea is now on the other side of the surgical tray. This compelling poem features a powerful closure.

How They Were Impacted

Jo Marie Reilly felt an overwhelming sense of futility. Reilly, a gifted writer, pours forth her heart in the essay, “In Need of a Prayer.” After helping patients in dire circumstances as she can, Reilly trudges homeward at 1:30 a.m., more dead than alive herself. As she motors away from the hospital the radio blares “The Prayer,” by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli …. the lyrics seem a fitting commentary:

        When we lose our way
        Lead us to a place
        Guide us with your grace
        Give us faith so we’ll be safe …

Rodica Stan, is a Ph.D., in biochemistry from Romania. An accomplished poet, Stan captures impact in her sobering poem, “Status Update”:

        I am healthy. Sanitized. Masked. Vaccinated. Alive.
        My tears collect in empty espresso cups,
        As I mourn my father’s death, alone, asphyxiated,
        As I fear my mother’s death, alone, across
        An ocean and two continents from me.

        There is COVID everywhere;
        In the space among us, them, all …
        Infiltrating the air, our intellect,
        History, death, and the earth that inters us.

How They Responded

In her moving prose narrative, “Preventing the Scarring of the Soul,” Dr. Lorna Rodriguez-Rodriguez writes about the grief she felt as her sister Raquel risked her life caring for Covid patients in Spain. During the chaotic period when PPE were in short supply and treatment protocols were changing hour-by-hour, Raquel died. A pall of unspeakable grief descended like a shawl on Dr. Rodriguez. Her story about witnessing the impact of illness on others underscores the overriding truth about our healthcare warriors: They are a people for others. They are people who give their best even when they have nothing left to give. Out of the emotional ashes of Raquel’s death, Dr. Rodriguez rose to a doctor’s ultimate height: the unstinting care of her patients.

In “Grateful for Time,” Dr. Shannon Zhang, writes of a patient, Ms. W. Diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, Ms. W. was weary of seeing so many doctors. She “just wanted to be left alone.” In the succeeding weeks Zhang began developing a friendship with Ms. W. This happened amid the frenetic atmosphere of Covid care. At a juncture when improvement signaled discharge, Ms. W. grew worse. Surgery was performed. In the aftermath, her patient, whom Zhang had grown to love, began to decline.

        “Despite my head running with the “to do’s” of that day and her unwillingness to engage in conversation with me due to fatigue, I stayed with her as she slept peacefully.”

        “During my last day on service, I greeted Ms. W. one last time, leaving her room before she could see my tears. I thought back to my first day with her and how I hastily swept out of her room to accomplish my tasks. Ms. W. reminded me about the human aspect of medicine: sitting by her side when she was lonely, removing excess bandages to make her more comfortable, and spending a few extra minutes with her even with the many other things to complete that day.”

As I read the wonderful poems and essays contributed by these 26 gifted healthcare pro-fessionals and writers, I wondered how to end this review. I needed look no further than the tender heart of Dr. Shannon Zhang … a heart shared by each contributor.

Editor’s Note: Co-Editors Thelma T. Reyna, Frank L. Meyskens, Jr., and Johanna Shapiro have included photographs and extended biographies of each contributor. These bios testify to the broad spectrum of professional backgrounds and literary expertise that make this volume standout in the ever-growing library of Covid-19 literature.


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