The doctor—not all doctors, but some—cares for the patient unto death. And of the doctors who care this far, some go an additional step, and witness the autopsy.
Awaiting autopsy, the newly deceased lies supine, naked, on a metal table. The head is positioned as if the closed eyes were looking straight up. The arms are at the side. The knees and elbows are straight. The ankles are bent forward, not to the side, at an angle of about 45 degrees. I have seen the bodies this way of persons I had known, persons I had spoken with the previous day.
And sometimes a live patient, consulting me for a physical examination, will lie the same way on the examination table, naked, looking up, arms at his side; and my thoughts turn to the autopsy suite. I wonder if I will someday see him too lying this way, recently cold, and I wonder about the complicated awful predicament of the physician. For all persons know they must die, and a few (nowadays) have seen a dead man; but only the physician, and the nurse, and perhaps the priest, have seen again and again the live become dead. Only the physician, and a few ghastly technicians, enter the autopsy suite. The warm becomes cold; the intact will be cut; I know it and see it and feel it before it will happen and after it has happened, the factness, those I have loved.
Charles Bardes is a physician who practices and teaches medicine in New York. His book-length prose poem, Diary of Our Fatal Illness (University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Poets, 2017), narrates the illness and death of an aged man. Other poems, essays, and ruminations have appeared in AGNI, Raritan, Ploughshares, The New England Journal of Medicine, and elsewhere. Pale Faces: The Masks of Anemia (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008) is an extended lyric essay that probes the mythological and cultural aspects of a common disease construct. In 2018 he received the Blackwell Prize in Writing, which “honors a writer who exhibits exceptional talent on the printed page, as well as meaningful social commitments on the public stage.” More info at charlesbardes.com. (updated 3/2020)
Charles Bardes and Tom Sleigh coauthored “A Viral Exchange, under Lockdown” for the AGNI blog.