A Life I Could Not Save

She did not feel her age though she was old,
But still looked young as she was often told.
And so she was a vibrant 95,
Happy to be healthy and alive.

And yet this cancer slowly had appeared,
A diagnosis worse than she had feared,
A stark intrusion in a peaceful life;
Now filled with fear, uncertainty and strife.

I truly understood her fragile state
And yet could not abandon her to fate.
So radiation seemed the treatment choice
As I spoke with an optimistic voice.

Regrettably this gave her no relief
And so her pain improvement was but brief.
I tried my best to help her understand
Treatments that her age might not withstand.

So we embarked upon an operation;
Strong in our resolve, not desperation.
Hoping to alleviate her plight.
Hoping that our chosen path was right.

We planned each detail, each step we would take
And all of the dissection we would make.
Our anesthesia colleagues also knew
That potential complications might ensue.

So here we were combined in our intent,
Knowing what success or failure meant.
But willing to attempt this for her sake
As this procedure we did undertake.

The surgery initially went well
But then quickly her blood pressure fell.
And despite our efforts to restore her breath,
All had to finally accept her death.

So what to make of this, did we do wrong?
Should we have let her suffering prolong?
Could we ignore her misery and pain?
How could we know our efforts were in vain?

Her sudden death of course was unexpected,
And certainly we all felt quite dejected.
We did our best to help this woman through,
But could not change events that would ensue.

I’ve thought about this patient many times,
Wondering if I had missed the signs
That would have clearly pushed me to pursue
A different course than what we chose to do.

As I experience doubt and regret,
I move on with my daily life and yet
My memories of this woman linger on,
Never from my recollection gone.

This is a burden I agreed to bear,
A knowing part of what it is to care.
And so I take these memories to my grave
Concerning those whose lives I could not save.



Almost Cancer

Today I met a man who thought that he was truly dying.
This brush with his mortality had left him lost and crying.
He never really understood how fragile life can be,
And now his hopes and desperation focused square on me.

I had a kindly conversation with him and his wife.
I guaranteed that I would do my best to save his life.
I reassured him that this tumor might still be benign.
If not we hoped that we had caught it in the nick of time.

Next day I gave him his good news, that it was nothing bad.
He and his wife were quite relieved and yet they both seemed sad.
They looked back at their lives and saw so many wasted years.
They smoked too much and drank too much and cried too many tears.

That day that he thought he was gone was really quite a gift.
It made him see that up ‘til then his life was just adrift.
Although I never had to work a wonder with a knife,
That day was not forgotten and in fact it saved his life.



Childhood Cancer Survivor

I saw her back, now 28 and mother of 2 boys,
And yet at our first visit her mom brought along her toys.
What miracle had happened that enabled her to live,
And now allowed her to go forth with all she has to give?

I knew how bravely she approached this horrible disease,
Balancing her hopes and fears as if on a trapeze.
Suffering in silence. Looking older than her age.
Amazing that this youngster had the wisdom of a sage.

Even on the darkest days she always had a smile.
An inner strength to look beyond and always know that while
Life seemed so unpleasant, it would hopefully change course.
Emanating fortitude from some unknown resource.

But now she seemed just quite content with all things as they are,
Leaving prior ugliness and pain behind her far.
Proud of what she had become more than what she went through.
Able to appreciate her world as few can do.

I understood this was a moment I was blessed to see,
A victory for her more than a victory for me.
So any time I wonder what my life is all about,
I recall her serenity which then removes all doubt.


Richard Lackman is an orthopaedic cancer surgeon and poet.

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23 Responses

  1. Peter Hartley

    Having recently suffered a bereavement I find these three poems encapsulate so well the moral dilemmas and the soul-searching that medical practitioners must go through every day in treating disease and death and in dealing with the bereft. Such a noble profession and one I could never have dared to join. These poems well-written, technically accomplished, and above all they make you think.

    • Dick Lackman

      Thanks for your kind comments. Happy to provide some insight into the physician side of patient interactions. Caring for people is a blessing and we always get more than we give.

    • C.B. Anderson

      I daresay, Peter, I found the pathos much better than the technical accomplishment, though I would hasten to join you in expressing a reluctance ever to join such a profession. For one thing, my hand is not as steady as it once might have been.

  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    This is raw poetry written from the heart. While it doesn’t meet every literary requirement, it has tapped into the heart and soul of this reader. The words brought a spiritual understanding to the science of medicine and had me crying – a sure sign of marvelous and promising poetry. Thank you for this awesome insight.

  3. M. P. Lauretta

    So much sorrow is caused by this horrible disease.

    Clinical trials are due to begin on a new cure (yes, you read that right, cure!) which, if it works, will be the Holy Grail of oncology.

    Unfortunately Covid-19 now risks freezing even this in its tracks.

    Why isn’t there international co-operation on this? All over the world, people need it, and need it now.


    • Margaret Coats

      Dr. Lackmann suggested the Holy Grail in “Almost Cancer,” line 12: “We smoked too much and drank too much and cried too many tears.” His patient (and the patient’s wife) were blessed with the knowledge that they needed lifestyle changes.

      Thanks to M. P. Lauretta for the link to hopeful medical research. I return the favor by recommending the book “Eat for Life,” published a month ago today, based upon many thousands of scientific studies. The chapter “We Can Prevent Cancer” shows that some patients can even reverse cancer (see patient story on pages 146-148). The greater good news is that many of us never need see an oncologist or a cardiologist or other disease specialists. Our health is in our hands, and in the hands of primary care doctors who owe us information that many of us never receive, or don’t receive early enough.

      • M. P. Lauretta

        If only it were that simple, Margaret!

        It’s not just the 40-fag-a-day category who get cancer. I’ve heard many stories of people with heathy lifestyles who got the disease, for example a super-fit woman who ran a marathon one day and was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer the next!

        Of course an unhealthy lifestyle will increase the odds of coming down with the disease, but sadly a healthy lifestyle doesn’t guarantee you won’t.

      • Margaret Coats

        You are right, M. P., staying healthy is NOT simple. People who have developed cancer need therapies, and immunotherapy seems the best prospect at present. I did read the article you suggested and found the work being done hopeful. Please do consider the book I suggested; it is endnoted with hundreds of the most recent studies among the thousands on which it is based. Whether one is hoping to prevent cancer or to optimize cancer treatment, the same principles apply to healthy nutrition. Drugs will never cure if food works against them. You and C. B. have rightly slammed Big Pharma, but behind Big Pharma is the Empty Eats industry, packaging the nutrient-poor food we love with added fat to collect biotoxins, added salt to constrict blood vessels, and added sugar to feed tumors. It is NOT SIMPLE to make the change from a standard “healthy” diet to a nutrient-rich one, but it’s worth learning how.

      • M. P. Lauretta

        You know what really gets me, Margaret? They manage to put loads of sugar even in supposedly savoury food!

    • C.B. Anderson


      Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive information about herbal or fungal cures for cancer with copious anecdotal evidence attached, and with numerous (undoubtedly true) citations regarding Big Pharma’s unwillingness to consider therapies that do not provide them with enormous profits. Physicians themselves are handcuffed by FDA restrictions, though some of them have taken a stand against what most of us believe could only happen in China. Someday the truth will out, and we will find ourselves in the second Paradise created by the powers up above, the post-Edenic one in which we find ourselves.

      • M. P. Lauretta

        I totally agree with you, C. B.

        Herbs, fungi, and even spices, have been found to have sometimes strong anti-cancer peoperties, but the evidence remains “anecdotal” because Big Pharma will not invest any risources in clinical trials on substances that are cheap and readily available.

        You cannot patent curcumin and curcuminoids (found in turmeric) or spirulina, or chlorella, even though there is evidence that they have strong anti-cancer peoperties.

        True, chemo drugs are often derived from natural herbs, etc., but they are highly processed and therefore can be patented.

        Professor Sewell’s solution is different though. It’s immunotherapy, and looks very promising indeed.

  4. Margaret Coats

    These three poems form a beautiful set of chart notes on three cases that reflect your concern for the whole patient, not just his or her current physical condition. The last quatrain of the first poem is a splendid statement of how this caring concern feeds into the physician’s whole life, not just his career. Thanks for helping us see that.

    Your use of rhyme seems excellent; there’s no place in these profound poems where I wonder if a word was chosen for its sound only. However, a little more attention to rhythm might make your work even better. For example, in the second poem, line 13, why not write, “The day he thought that he was gone was really quite a gift”? By changing the placement of just one word, the rhythm becomes smooth and matches the rhythm of the other line in the rhyming couplet, giving you a fine final stanza.

    • Dick

      Thanks for the comments. I will make the change. To me, classical poetry with linguistic beauty and a story to tell is language squared

    • M. P. Lauretta

      Another simple change worth considering is removing the “That” from

      That potential complications might ensue.

      In future poems I would recommend a closer eye on meter and moving away from the AABB rhyme scheme to ABAB or ABBA, to make things more interesting.

      • C.B. Anderson


        Check this out. It might tell you how well we’ve been lied to:

      • M. P. Lauretta

        Only the left half of the screen is visible here. Could you please post the link?

  5. Dick

    Thanks much. Glad to provide some insight into the physician side of interactions with patients

    • C.B. Anderson


      I take no issue with your compassionate approach to your patients, but what strains my patience is the wanton disregard, by the medical establishment, of therapies relegated to quack status, that time after time have been shown to be of great value. Anecdotes can sometimes light the way toward antidotes, and it’s my experience that the medical establishment is slow to take advantage of alternative methods of remediation and seemingly counter-intuitive protocols for remissions. I know that anecdotes are legion, and that “science” does not always back them up, but the scientific method, in my opinion, does not always precisely align with reality. Having said all of that, I am nonetheless impressed with the tenor of your approach to modern medicine. Your poems, as Susan Jarvis Bryant pointed out, could use some remediation, but your heart is definitely in the right place. Your profession and your avocation are two very distinct things.

  6. Dusty Grein

    Dr. Lackman,

    I am an old poet, and I am not very knowledgeable about the many technical aspects of health care, nor am I privileged to know a lot about all the political and/or sociological factors that you must work within. I do however, have a deep and abiding empathy for the basic human connections that drive the emotional content behind your words.

    I myself, have an elderly mother, who at 76 has multiple issues including 2 bad heart valves, impending organ failure, COPD and more than one suspicious tumorous mass. She has successfully survived previous battles with cancer, but last month her care team met with all of us in her family, and we let her choose the best course. She opted for home hospice care and we all support her decision to have her family and loved ones with her at home, as we help her remain as comfortable and “normal” as possible, rather than spend days/weeks in a hospital, while the heroes who work there attempt to perform miracles that will honestly, not produce any better life for her.

    In the end, I just wanted to say thank you. Not just for your tear-inducing poetry (which was very powerful) but for your countless hours of personal compassionate care, pain, and sacrifice. We often take our doctors for granted, but I think most of us really do live in awe of you and your ability to continue to help, despite the costs.

    Bless you.

  7. Rod Walford

    Hello Richard
    I would like to echo Dusty’s last paragraph above. I do not hasten, as some do, to point out your poetic shortfalls as I firmly believe that the spirit of your poems overrides the letter of the law. Not the easiest of subjects to write about but who better than one such as yourself who operates on the front line. Thank you for sharing your work. I salute you Sir.

  8. Monty

    Congratulations, Richard, for being able to get your chosen ‘mission’ in life down onto the page. It’s always nice to hear something directly from the horse’s mouth.

    You talk of ‘a life you could not save’ without mentioning the many that you have! Bravo.


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