Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

When I heard the learn’d epidemiologist

Dean Gianakos
Lynchburg, Virginia, United States


Photo of a man looking up at the starry night sky
Photo by prottoy hassan on Unsplash 

Sitting on the maroon recliner in my den, I am having trouble concentrating on the epidemiologist who is talking on the television. He points to a Covid hot zone on a color-coded map of the United States. The screen changes before I can locate Virginia. Were we brown, or yellow? The figures, charts, and diagrams are confusing. Too many graphs and hard-to-see lines. I lower the volume. I look down and flip through the pages of a book of poems on my lap. My eyes land on a poem by Walt Whitman. My wife is on the sofa, playing bridge on her phone. I glance out the window. It is dark outside, with a few stars in sight. I stand up to stretch. William Carlos Williams famously wrote that it is difficult to get the news from poems. I am having difficulty getting the news from the news.

I change the channel. Another expert reports on the availability of gowns, surgical masks, and face shields across the country. Numbers, numbers, and numbers. The President applauds the magnitude of testing in America. Scientists contradict him. There are contrary statements regarding the benefits and risks of new drug therapies. More conflicting reports regarding the numbers of available test kits and nasal swabs.

“Day 63,” I remark to my wife.

“I’m tired,” she says.

“Me too, let’s turn it off.”

I sit down and read the poem:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I tell my wife I am going to step outside. I open the front door and glide out into the mystical moist night-air, looking up and contemplating in perfect silence the coronas in the sky.



DEAN GIANAKOS, MD, FACP, is the Director of Medical Education at Centra Health in Central Virginia. He is a current member of Centra’s Physician Wellness Committee. As a general internist and former faculty member at Lynchburg Family Medicine Residency, he has taught family medicine residents and medical students for over 25 years. He is board certified in Internal Medicine. He frequently writes and lectures on the patient-physician relationship, emotional intelligence, and the medical humanities. He serves on the editorial board of the medical humanities journal, The Pharos.


Summer 2020  |  Sections  |  Covid-19

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