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Medical Humanities

House Call

Sadaf Qureshi

September 12, 2018

A knock on the door, then a frantic face,
A hand on my hand, then a tug and a race.
To a door two doors down, through a gate, past a screen,
And there on the entrance floor, the spindle-limbs of a fallen queen.

Four arms intertwine, until four legs stand straight in a line.
A queen regains her throne, as she irons out her crinkled spine.
Down her spine, my prodding fingers, in my fingertips, her pulsing heart.
In my head the seconds counted, seventy-six beats per minute, and nowhere to chart.

Into my palms, her lungs pull air, into the air each shoulder shrugs.
From each shoulder, she stretches her arms, and my fingers her fingers hug.
Into my light she shines her eyes, with her eyes I see my trace.
My trace her pupils follow, then wall to wall, then their resting place.

When each has examined the other, the queen bids the doctor “good night,”
And the doctor dissolves gently, beyond the blushing of a street light,
Past a screen, through a fence, to a door two doors down.
She climbs into bed, and settles her head, now each to the other is bound.

Editor's Comments:

Reading Qureshi’s “House Call” gives me such joy. This bedtime story, this nursery rhyme, this sing-song poem characterizes one of my favorite aspects of medicine that is often overlooked: the playful dance. Gone is the buttoned-up physician with a straight face. Instead we follow an adventurer on their “race” down the twisting path to a “fallen queen.” And while the narrator and this queen dance with each other through the physical exam, as described in lines such as “From each shoulder, she stretches her arms, and my fingers her fingers hug,” the words themselves dance in their meaning and undercut our assumptions. For example, the line “Into my light she shines her eyes” turns a normal physical exam on its head. Normally we think of the physical exam as something being done to a patient, but here the patient is the active subject and the doctor, through their pen light, is the object being acted upon. This reversal of agency helps us reexamine examinations themselves.


This linguistic playfulness, like the whimsy of Lewis Carroll, brings both delight and deeper commentary. Some of my favorite moments practicing medicine have occured during house visits. I find that the delineation between doctor and patient becomes blurred and a warmer, more human connection is able to blossom, because dancing necessitates cooperation, a give-and-take from both partners that has not always been described in traditional paternalistic medicine. The doctor in this scenario does not act upon a patient, but instead “each. . . examine[s] the other.” And when we question our traditional expectations of the roles that doctors, patients, and even words are supposed to play, we are able to form different and more meaningful connections, as Qureshi so beautifully notes with his final line, “now each to the other is bound.”

Mara Feingold-Link