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January 2014, vol 9, no 4

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Robert Davey


In their third year medical students were released onto the wards. After two years of lectures and experiments pathologies became people, symptoms became lives.

I was sent to Hope Hospital, a blackened brick former workhouse in Salford. A burnt smell from a nearby factory tainted the air. It was like walking into one of Lowry's paintings.

rain on a paper bag
the scent
of Eccles cakes

On the ward the consultant took me to examine a patient: a thin elderly man sitting bolt upright on his bed, panting. With every breath his neck muscles tensed, trying to haul air into his lungs. When I listened to his chest, despite his efforts, the breath sounds and wheezes were quiet, distant.

"Very good. Cause?"
"A reasonable assumption, but in this case, incorrect." I was silent.

The consultant pointed to the man's shoulders and back: "What are these?" I peered at the white flesh: numerous blue-black dots and squiggles decorated his skin. I was sure I had never seen anything like this in my textbooks. In response to my obvious ignorance the consultant elaborated. "Mr Wolstenholme is, was, a coal miner. These are coal dust tattoos. Abrasions sustained at the coal face become impregnated with dust that remains in the dermal macrophages after healing. The emphysema is the end result of pneumoconiosis, or coal miner's lung."

black heat
stooping to strip
to the waist

The doctor looked down at the patient: "How long were you a miner?"

"Forty seven year in the pit," he said, "man and boy. Till I were invalided out." He sounded bitter, but when he looked up I saw this was just the effort of speaking. There was pride in his grey eyes.

occulting stars
the pit wheel spins
into the night