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Chemo Scrambled My Brain

Angie Wang for NPR

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."

Chemo Brain

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.

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