Treading the Waters with Lee
August 26, 2016
To the physician readers of “Swimming” by Esther Lee, this piece is a flashback to the day you stood on the shore of the ocean that is this career in medicine you chose to wade out into. Lee has a writer’s eye for honest details that make her first shift in an Emergency Room, believably, an otherworldly experience. And yet, she writes like an old soul, limns lines poetic with balanced choices of where to employ literary craft and where to restrain. “Hands clutching chests, misting mouthpieces, rushing gurneys… graphed representations of nervous hearts are easier to look at.”
Lee describes the lonely neglect that is the common condition of all new medical students as they walk into the thrum of clinical medicine and find themselves standing on the edge of it all, learning from a distance. It is the rare medical student who understands this role as the necessary outsidership that creates a good poet. Lee turns her uncertainty into curious beauty, “You love the ocean till you struggle against the current, far from the shore.” The swim is ever more difficult for those who cannot help but carry with them the “heavy responsibility” of caring—or perhaps more than mere “caring” Lee recognizes in herself the gift some have to imagine from the space of the other—when she observes in Bed 6 the “fluttering blue laces” of a woman having a seizure, her “arms are folding and unfolding as if someone is puppetting them to [perform] an uncontrollable dance,” it would seem that part of Lee cannot help but look back out at the room from the eyes of the woman who is also struggling, in the bed as though against a current, also far from shore.
This piece evokes in me, not long beyond medical school myself, the wizardly wise work of Rainier Marie Rilke Letters to A Young Poet, in which he implores young poets, young doctors, to “love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.”
I read Lee’s work as a call to which Rilke is response. As Lee writes, “There are ways to work with the dying. Listen, understand, hold their hand. Be silent. What are methods to cope with feeling inadequate?” I hear the fond dead poet call back to the young woman clutching her life jacket on the edge of the ocean, “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart...live in the question.”
Rachel Hammer, MD