Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The veteran’s hospital

Helen Foster
Richmond, Virginia, United States


Poet’s statement: Before I went to medical school, I followed doctor’s orders to hold my toddler son down and force on him more eye-drops than he needed to dilate his pupils. He panicked, and the atropine drops made him hallucinate. The incident I describe in my poem “The Veteran’s Hospital” was just as eye-opening for me. Physicians, parents and soldiers have a lot in common. We hope our actions are for the good and we can try to do no harm, but we can’t avoid inflicting pain.


The veteran’s hospital

5 AM: I’ve coffee-stained my intern
whites. Remember OR shadow
movies behind sheets? Can a girl
walk point? The Viet Cong
nightmares don’t belong to me.

Not yet. The vet I see is Mr. Long:

After an hour in the ER,
with a two-volume chart, fever,
bag of urine sludge, and no IV,
he pleads with pain-taut

looks, his skin molasses gloss over veins
like a private’s after pushups. His tie-in-the-back
gown evokes Vietnam dreams in the unlit
ward of no sleep. Loud without a word

he allows me to start his IV, percuss
his chest, palpate his pelvis, and peel
off a foul condom-catheter. In volume
two his chart first notes urethral stricture.

Home a week since his stroke
Mr. Long cannot speak.
On call, I have not slept.
He rests. I write my notes,

prepare for rounds. The attending dictates
a litany of should-have-dones and shoulds:
Collect specimen. Use catheter.
Gram-stain urine. Ignore strictures.

Mr. Long awakes, shakes his head, raises
a palm as if to swear on a Bible and make
me stop. I am the July intern.
He was the soldier made to shoot.

No dispensation from my team. This is the old
VA hospital, disarmed armory of tunnels, mile-long
halls, aphasic soldiers. He turns to face the wall.
I’ve seen it too, the metastatic plaster

blank as sleep. Each push of KYed
catheter catches. I refuse to thrust. My
resident insists. He prods the rubber probe
and fails while Mr. Long resists

and dies a partial death. I weep
in the bathroom while the team
consults Urology. Mr. Long
will never look my way again.

Source of stricture:
Jammed foreskin, pseudo-circumcision
by rushed nurse. Source of scripture:
Old testament. Eye for an eye.
I looked away. He looks away.
I am not forgiven. We are not forgiven.
This is my first medical rape.
Forgive us.



HELEN MONTAGUE FOSTER, MD, is a psychiatrist with a psychotherapy practice. She is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University, and her poems have appeared or are scheduled for publication in JAMA, The Pharos, Citizen Jane, and Rattle. She is simultaneously revising two novels: A Year of Seeing Lights and Narcissistic Injuries.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2011 – Volume 3, Issue 1
Winter 2011  |  Sections  |  Poetry

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.