After years working as a nurse in critical care units, Anne Webster found herself lying in the hospital struggling to get well. She had been given the wrong dose of a chemotherapy medication to treat Crohn's disease. The mistake had caused her bone marrow to shut down, and she'd developed pneumonia.
As she lay in the hospital, she thought, "If I live, I'm gonna write about this."
After three weeks, she recovered. And the experience led Webster to write Chemo Brain, a poem about how the drug scrambled her thinking.
Poetry, she says, has a way of trimming "away every extraneous word until the essence shines through."
These days, she writes essays and poetry full-time. Webster's first collection of poems, A History of Nursing, was nominated for a 2008 National Book Award. She's currently working on a second anthology and a novel about a nurse involved in a murder mystery.
"I'm a nurse," she says. "It's what I know."
Listen to Anne Webster read her poem
By Anne Webster
Since a doctor gave me poison pills that left
my heart a swollen slug, killed off my bone marrow,
set my lungs to clamoring, I can get brain-freeze
without eating a snow cone. When I walk
my neighborhood's knotted streets, lost drivers
stop to ask directions. After thirty years, I know
the pretzel-turns, but when they motor off, I wonder,
Did I say left when I meant right? My husband
gets that look when words change lanes
without bothering to signal. Like soap bubbles
they pop from my mouth—"bird" for "tree," "cat" for "dog."
I know I've done it again when my grown children
all but pat my head. As if by magic, plastic wrap,
detergent appear in the refrigerator. After errands,
my car comes home nicked and scratched,
as if it's sneaking nips on the sly. I'm afraid
to drive anywhere new, one wrong turn
I'm lost forever. Just ask me a simple math problem —
numbers dissolve into my skull's black hole.
Even as I curse that doctor, my brain wakes,
a baby from a nap, stretching till its eyes pop open.
A tsunami of panic recedes, but, as with an errant lover,
it's a long time before I am able to trust again.
April is National Poetry Month, and Shots is exploring medicine in poetry through the words of doctors, patients and health care workers. The series is a collaboration with Pulse: Voices Through The Heart Of Medicine, a platform that publishes personal stories of illness and healing.