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An Original Poem Commissioned for the 2008
National Occupational Injury Research Symposium
Originally Performed October 21, 2008
They look at us
As if we are made of stone.
Not so much flesh-born
As marble-carved and diamond-cut.
Like we mark each breath
In parts per billion.
Our hearts only beating
To pump percentages
Treating us like the instruments we wield,
The surveys we administer,
Like getting any closer to us
Would reduce them to a code
En route to conclusions
In our manuscripts.
This is the challenge of being labeled scientist:
People only see the steel of it,
As though the physics and statistics
Have swapped our blood for mercury
And left us uncaring.
A laugh gets deconstructed to decibels.
Feelings become friction,
A firm-grip handshake a measure of torque.
They look at us
As if our eyes are cascades of binary code,
The whole world melting into streams of 0’s and 1’s,
The only language we can now comprehend.
But they don’t know.
They don’t understand what you see
When you cocoon yourself
Behind that computer screen,
But I’ve seen it.
How the data take on dimensions,
That it walks like a farmer who doesn’t mind dirtying his hands.
That it stands strong and long,
Anchored like the oak limbs of a tech
Who’s prepped and scrubbed for surgery.
That it sprints like a first-time responder
To the latest radio call,
Four-alarm and fever pitch.
That it breathes like a miner
Who’s never been afraid of the dark
Or the dust.
That it glides like intact skin,
Never punctured or pierced,
Radiates the full range of motion
Of healthy knees.
But you’ve also seen
The vermilion tinge of spilled blood.
Knotted, twisted backs bent low
From patient strain.
Broken hips that will never swivel
To the rhythm of a salsa or djembe drum again.
Limbs lost to tractors,
Livers lost to hepatitis,
Slow death by hollow-bore.
You have borne witness to all of this:
The good, bad, ugly, and unimaginable.
The pain sits heavy in your lap
Like a stillborn,
Motivates you to do more.
This is the science
They never see on your screen.
The person in the pixels
Who benefits when you labor.
Who may never know the meaning of a Newton or joule,
But will spend every last one they have
To work the work and get the job done.
So the next time you are questioned,
When they dare to dismiss that dismally dull job of yours
And ask you what you really do
(this time in English, please)?
Translate it for them.
Tell them you spin science into silk.
Spool it around their hands
And let them feel it.
Spin it strong,
Enough to hoist the weight and spirits
Of the grey-haired man
Holding the nurse’s hand
En route to the surgical suite.
Spin it soft,
A salve to soothe the ears,
Preserve the percussion of the eardrum
When the air around just won’t stop trembling.
Spin it rough,
So it grips the foot of the short-order cook
And keeps him from falling
So he can keep making magic for the palate.
Spin it thick,
Like spider webs uniting,
Filaments to filter the airways
Free to breathe deep again.
Spin it tight,
Like a firefighter’s grip
On the cannons that blast the flames and fears away.
Spin it wide,
A net spanning skyscrapers and scaffolding
To catch the freefalling
Before bone turns to sand on concrete.
Spin it like culture,
A shared tongue,
Una lengua autentica o una suplica para salud.
Spin it like death from making a living
Is no longer an option.
Spin it like a story
That your recommendations
Rescued someone today.
Spin it like a cocoon
Keeping coffins out of sight.
This is our science:
The study of safety in silk.
So a parent can practice
Holding children in limbs
That will never be phantom.
So lungs can taste
The full flavor of an Appalachian night wind
Instead of an oxygen tube.
So our teenagers can practice
Building jobs into careers
Without fear of burns or bullets.
This is why we digest our data.
They may not see it,
Touch it or smell it.
But with each new morning,
Each account of one less injury,
Each smile that rises like eastern sun as new workday dawns,
We feel it.
Oh, do we feel it.
--Stacy W. Smallwood, MPH
October 21, 2008