Issue 20 / 28 May 2018

The world shudders, as trucks scream by, and wakes from a waking dream
The girl that drives home from long nights, missing cars and trees
But missing more her husband and three children who now lie sleeping there
She said she’d be back three hours ago, in time for their night prayer
When she sees her husband resting, tired to the bone
She says to herself, so quietly, “This is how much I owe”.

Returned to work consultants bark, like a three-headed dog insatiate
They say you must be bitten here, if you want to pass this gate
So she worked on, through days and nights, digging deep beneath her skin
Knowing that those who make her bleed, have the keys to let her in
And when at the last hour of light her boss rounds, holding her in tow
She looks at her unwilling feet and says, “This is how much I owe”.

The shift end comes round but sirens howl, bloody cacophonies
That shriek “Mr M’s dehisced again, so run to bedroom 3”
An hour later he’s still alive but can’t be left untended
So, she waits, unmoving, as quiet, still night descended
Her four-year-old boy sleepily ponders “When’s she coming home?”
Her only thought in reply, “This is how much I owe”.

Her tired thoughts brought memories back of nightly vigils made
For her mum and dad to take her back from Grandma’s, two hours late.
“Contentment breeds failure,” they said. “So work harder than you need,
“Our family pride relies on you, on every word and deed.”
Though now both passed, she feels them watch her struggle here below.
She hangs her head and says to herself, “This is how much I owe”.

Like a doll caught amongst children’s hands and fighting, screaming, shouts,
She felt her seams tear and come loose and all her insides out
As she watched her patient fade, vacillating to and fro from death.
She felt she was the one ready to die, to cede her one last breath
But looking around, her patient’s there and, to herself who’d sunk so low,
She thought quietly, “I cannot leave, for this is how much I owe”.

Dressed in black, the piano’s dirge gave voice to all our pain,
Not for her patient but a friend, a doctor lost again.
For she, like her, had felt heavy debts tied to hold her down
But unlike her, she couldn’t find the keys before she drowned.
If we look at those who’ve gone before, that our system breaks when it should grow,
We have to stop and ask ourselves, how much do we owe?

Dr Matthew Lennon is a junior doctor at Wagga Base Hospital. He has interests in bioethics, neurology and puns (because jokes make great medicine).

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8 thoughts on “Debts

  1. Anonymous says:

    Brilliantly written, Matthew! Congratulations.

  2. Divergent says:

    Oh I had those very thoughts as a JHO at Wagga Base back in the early 00’s. Glad I made it out alive.

  3. Repiratory Physician says:

    Thought provoking, and well written, Matthew.
    Thank you

  4. Anonymous says:

    A wonderful, albeit haunting piece of work, Matthew. Thank you for sharing. It calls to many of us, I am sure. I remember 36hr medical registrar shifts. Decades on, the sense of obligation to others remains, the demands are different but even greater. Opting out of medicine to save one’s health and family relations is a not infrequent consideration. There will always be the rhetorical question, “How much is enough?”

  5. Steve Hambleton says:

    Readers please listen to this or get the transcript of the AMA website. We must leave our profession better than we found it for the sake of those who identify above or within Alex’s talk to National Conference that you can find here.
    Ms Farrell’s address can be watched in full at

  6. Dr Jan Sheringham says:

    Hanna PLEASE!!! Have you never heard of poetic licence? This is a beautiful if sad reflective poem, which could just as readily, and possibly should, have been written about a married man in the same predicament! Appreciate it for what it is – a very elegant piece of writing. Congratulations Matthew, so very well expressed.

  7. Hanne Gudiksen says:

    Kindly stop infantilising us. The word is “woman”. She’s not a girl just because she’s female. Ugh.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful but sadly accurate. Memories of 16 hour intern shifts, admissions at 10 pm, paid for 8 hours and expected to just put up with it, as others before did and now still are. Recognising my very “being” was changing just to endure some required method of initiation. So I left the system. It wasn’t worth it.

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