Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The First Cut

Lisa Friedman
Cleveland, Ohio, United States


Poet’s statement: The poem is about my first experience with cadavers in the anatomy lab at medical school.

The first cut

My first patient was an 88-year-old female
“Congestive Heart Failure” the chart said.
Not in acute distress
Neither alert nor oriented x 3.

I was told I had consent to look.
She lay still, peaceful, receptive.
I wonder if she would change her mind
If she knew what I was about to do.

Four of us huddled around her
Looking on with curiosity and confusion
We exposed her body
And nervously, we touched.

We made a long incision down her front
Sifting through layers of skin and muscle and fat.
Pulling pieces of her away with our tools
Though I doubted it would help her chest pain.

In the abdomen, I cut too deep
Found some bowel
And retracted my blade.
I didn’t want to hurt her.

I could not see her face
meaning she could not see me.
Perhaps she was too ashamed to look on.
I was far too timid to meet her gaze.

Cutting violently through her body
I longed to give emotions to tissues
This oozing fluid reveals loneliness
This layer of muscle is hope.

I had the urge to name and to know
To hold and to comfort
But I only had consent to know her body
Her essence was not mine to discover

My job was to turn her inside out
Pieces of mom, sister, wife, and grandma
Stuck to my blade and my notes and my scrubs
I wonder if my mom would still be proud of me now.

I chose doctoring to prevent these scenes.
To fight valiantly against the dark villain of death
To form meaningful relationships with people
To know their fears and their hopes
And to help them at their moment of greatest need

But I had no skills, no knowledge, and no chance.
I could only sift through
What others had failed to save
And know that one day the same would happen to me.

I gagged.
The smell of defeat in the air.

surgeonPhotography by the National Guard



LISA FRIEDMAN is a graduate of Carleton College with a degree in American studies. She is currently in her second year of medical school at Case Western Reserve University, where she is also pursuing a master’s degree in bioethics. Her essay, “The Application Essay I Never Wrote” was recently published in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine and her poem “Surgery” was published in the journal Hospital Drive.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 1
Winter 2013  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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