David Watts’ second book of stories, The Orange Wire Problem, along with Bedside Manners, forms a body of work which explores the complexities of the art of medicine. He has published four books of poetry and a CD of “word-jazz.” Dr. Watts is an NPR commentator, a producer of the PBS program Healing Words: Poetry and Medicine, a gastroenterologist at the University of California-San Francisco, and a classically trained musician. He has been an on-camera television host and a medical columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The following excerpt is from a piece originally published in the Bellevue Literary Review.
FACTS AND LIES
Well, your pulse is great.
The emergency room nurse is bending over my foot, his tattooed deltoid rippling with fine movements of support for the hand that reaches to feel my ankle. His words, the last to come from the ER staff after a six-hour visit, are, I assume, intended to reassure, which they do, arriving like carriers of some thread of connection between us, a fellowship perhaps, a gesture both well intended and well received. And I do feel better, better able to face the tremors in my muscles, fatigued by hours of clenching a tight protection for the red-hot joint, now diminishing after the long needle's nip, the suckout of orange reticulated fluids and the push of Novocain and steroids to soothe the singe. I am in the aftermath, in the place where the body luffs in its wheelchair like sails in a dying wind. And here, in this place, his words do mean something to me, even though I know he's lying.
You see, the problem is he palpated the wrong place, not behind the inside of my ankle, where the posterior tibial artery runs like a river of renewal, but - a common mistake - behind the outside, where it does not. That he chose to tell me the pulse was great even though he didn't feel it - couldn't possibly have felt it - let me know he meant to say something grander, maybe something that sounds more like best wishes or you're going to be all right.
What puzzles me is that even though I knew his mistake as he was making it, that contrary knowledge did not prevent the good deed from happening or being well received. ... His report on the status of my pulse floated in like a gesture, only part of a larger gesture that signaled something to me - maybe only that I was being cared for. For although skill and accuracy were missing, intention was there. And somehow intention was enough.
So here I sit not minding the chill of my body so much, not minding the wait so much, sustained at least partly by the effort, though flawed, the nurse had made to try and make me feel better.
And for whatever the hell reason, I do.
- David Watts