James Poskett: A poetic triumph over the X-ray machine

In what begins as an ‘unassuming extension of the ears’ and later develops into a ‘triumph over the x-ray machine’, Anne Merritt’s recently published poem, Stethoscope, neatly captures the development of a unique medical relationship that has little to do with patients: one between a doctor and the instruments with which she plies her trade.

http://mh.bmj.com/content/early/2011/02/16/jmh.2010.005520

Michel Foucault famously drew attention to the stethoscope’s role in creating distance between patient and doctor: silence a requirement for the instrument’s use. What is exciting about Merritt’s poem is that, rather than focusing on this silence, she exposes the hidden dialogue that takes place between doctor and stethoscope, with the stethoscope not only serving to extend the doctor’s gaze but also acting as a physical extension of her embodied self.

This anthropomorphised companion listens, comforts and discovers, all with ‘loving grace’. For Merritt, the stethoscope not only shares her duties but in some cases even ventures forward, thereby allowing Merritt to ‘maintain a safe distance’. Rather than seeing this as loveless detachment, Merritt credits the stethoscope with a positive, therapeutic role, challenging the idea that patients are universally alienated by the cold touch of the stethoscope’s bell, and suggesting instead that it can represent the comforting presence of the doctor.

It is perhaps fitting that the poem ends with Merritt turning the stethoscope on herself, but, tellingly, her response to its touch is necessarily different to that of her patients. Whereas patients only experience the stethoscope for a fleeting moment, many physicians will have spent hours listening to the beat of their own heart. Where patients might therefore feel anxious, waiting in silence for the doctor’s response, Merritt is reassured by the evidence of her own vitality.

Finally, Merritt’s exploration of the doctor-stethoscope relationship prompts a question: how do physicians relate to the other instruments they use, such as the aforementioned x-ray machine? Indeed, will we be seeing poems entitled Endoscope or CT Scanner in the future? And, if not, why?

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