The coronavirus has changed how Dr. John Okrent practices medicine.
A family doctor at Sea Mar Community Health in Tacoma, Okrent had never done appointments by phone before. One day last week, with the clinic encouraging patients to stay home and call in, 19 of the 23 patients he tended to were on the phone.
On site, patients suspected of having the virus are screened and sent to a different entrance, and then to one of two designated rooms. There, they’re met by a medical assistant and then by Okrent or another doctor, wearing full gown, gloves, mask and face shield.
“It’s such a strange phenomenon. In my experience as a doctor, so much of what we do is laying hands on people and it’s close contact with people and it’s being right here for people,” said Okrent, who also works at a homeless shelter one day a week. “But coronavirus is the undercurrent of everything right now.”
Okrent, 39, has a way of dealing with this strange phenomenon. He’s writing poems about it — sonnets. Poetry Northwest, the venerable local poetry journal, published the first five last week. Sonnets six through eight were published a few days later.
One poem for each day, give or take, each one titled with the date. Each sonnet begins with the last line of the previous sonnet, one poem bleeding into the next. A crown of sonnets.
“It kind of mirrors the experience of our days now,” Okrent said. “Everybody is in a similar experience of the days kind of blending in with each other, there’s this repetition.”
The virus lingers over each poem. But he leaves clinical details sparse, cognizant of confidentiality and the fragile trust central to his relationships with patients.
Sea Mar remains open, treating patients, even as similar clinics across the country have been forced to furlough employees and cut back. Community health centers, which serve predominantly low-income and uninsured patients, have been hurt financially as many routine procedures, including dental work, have been put on hold.
Throughout the day, between two dozen tele-appointments and in-person visits, Okrent occasionally scribbles a word or two on a pad. He’ll compose lines in his head as he goes for walks around the block on his lunch break. At night, after his wife and 17-month-old daughter have gone to bed, he sits in their stilted fisherman’s cabin on Tacoma’s waterfront, and turns the day’s thoughts and notes into poems.
He sent a few to Bill Carty, a poet and senior editor at Poetry Northwest. It wasn’t a submission, just a “here’s what I’m working on” note between friends.
“I’ve been writing little dispatches from ‘the frontlines’ as people are calling it (though I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a foxhole) to help me deal with the stress of my days,” Okrent wrote.
Carty asked if he could publish them. He liked the images conjured in the poems — “Everyone’s eyes seemed wider / above their face masks.”
They’ve attracted more readers than anything on Poetry Northwest’s website since 2016, as far back as their records go, Carty said.
“They’re not pedantic or self-congratulatory or obvious,” he said. “There’s something to the way they observe the pandemic, but literally bring it home. As a doctor he has to bring that home with him.”
Writing poems at night, Okrent said, helps keep him from feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic; overwhelmed by each day’s drumbeat of numbers — new cases, new hospitalizations, new deaths.
“It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” wrote America’s preeminent doctor cum poet, William Carlos Williams. “Yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
You could, indeed, get the news from Okrent’s poems. You could read a thorough inquiry into how the state’s disease-reporting system has been overrun with a flood of case data. Or, you could read two lines from Okrent’s sonnet of March 31: “The Department of Health’s website is down / so today’s dead remain unnumbered.”
“Poetry is the art of attention,” Okrent said. “And I was looking for a way to pay attention to this time in a way that didn’t just feel completely devastating.”
Others in recent days have turned to poems, and to Walt Whitman, to divert from the daily onslaught.
Dr. Craig Smith is chair of the surgery department at a New York City hospital under siege from the virus, New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. Every day he writes a note to his colleagues.
On the first day of this month, he quoted T.S. Eliot to steel his doctors and nurses for the horrors still to come:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
“I admire it most for one phrase,” Smith wrote. “Mixing memory and desire. In an April that may be apocalyptically cruel, that is how we are poised, desiring spring.”
And when Gov. Jay Inslee sat behind his desk for a televised address, to tell Washingtonians that he was ordering every non-essential business in the state to shut down, he turned to Whitman for help.
Inslee quoted “Song of Myself,” pulling from a section about a ship captain trying to rescue a steamship that’s been drifting, “crowded and rudderless” in a storm. In his own ship, the captain chases the steamship, its passengers near death, for three days.
“He knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights.”
At one point, the captain scrawls a message on a chalkboard and holds it up to the beleaguered souls on the steamship. Inslee ended his speech with that message:
“Be of good cheer, we will not desert you.”