The poetry of OHSU

OHSU celebrated National Poetry Month in April this year with its fourth annual poetry contest and recognition event, sponsored by the OHSU Library. In the submission guidelines, poets were asked to focus on their OHSU experience, and the contest judges considered how well they expressed that theme, as well as artistic excellence, and the poem’s relationship to health and healing.

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Student Sonja Halvorson won second place and an honorable mention for two of her submissions. These are the poems she submitted.

Operating Room, Number Twenty


Perhaps my favorite part of surgery

was when it had ended,

the music turned off

and it was time for me, just me, to wash the body.


Newly knotted sutures

recently remarried skin

ruddy with the damage we suffered it.

In need of rinsing, in need of care.


I sometimes wonder if I’m too tender

for this business of knives.


I should have been a velvet maker

a berry picker,

the belly of a brawny cat —

something soft.


So I lived

for the moment after,

a new set of white gloves, the wet sponge

the clean blue towel.


Warm water, my hands on their skin,

as if to say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, 

I know we helped you


but there were moments this hour

when all I could see was blood.


Heppner, OR


Out here, the deer

they walk me to the hospital – or I chase them from my frozen lawn down the lane, it

isn’t quite clear.


But when I emerge from the ER, sometimes in the chill dark night

they are often waiting for me — a throng of big, clear eyes

under a fold of country stars — ready

to gently usher me,

to guide me home.


This coming and going, chaperoned by 20 cloven feet, two antlers,

three white baby tails. Wind

jackknifing through the few trees, ruffling the golden spoonfuls of hills.


I am safe here.


We walk together, birds quirk and dizzy themselves at the clicking of hoof and heel against asphalt, the six of us


Straight out into the cool dawn, pushing forward through the mist


as though there is another world next to this one

that I could bend down beside

and hear.


17th Grade


You have spent a lifetime

trying to hide


everything that you do not know.


And it may have worked for a while, to cloak

yourself so heavily

in that way.


But the time

(now, yes now, finally)


has come to expose the soft underbelly

of that fear.



You are not sure, really,

what honor looks like,


but perhaps it is small,


perhaps it is hearing yourself say:


I am unsure  &

next time I will be better,

    and if not,

                again, I will ask again. 




I took particular joy, in learning

the words of medicine.


The anatomy of my lungs,

who’s Indo-European root word means


made from my chest of luminescence,

each exhalation a refraction, something bright.


A white moon in my wrist, lunate, bobbing above

the boat bone, navicular,

created for me

a water color seascape under the skin.


There is great mythology in the story of this, my body:

A Greek shield of thyroid, who’s cartilage is sometimes called

the apple of Adam

(and wasn’t it Eve’s?)


It took careful time to map the landscape,

a taxonomy of physical shapes named after grapes

see: uvula and

botryoid tumors, congregated, like bunches of purple concord.


Eventually, I spoke like a local

no longer squinty eyed at words, quintuple syllabic.

It became quite easy to forget how many people

inhabit bodies, that are mysterious

not only in function, but



And then:

a handsome mechanic complained of palpitations,

worried it might be atrial “refrigeration.”


I smiled, feeling smug, while his heart,

beat wildly out of time.


It took me three whole hours to remember:

I require company when getting the oil changed in my car,

afraid that they will use words I do not understand,

afraid of appearing that I own something

I don’t have the language

to describe.


About the Author

Sonja Jamaica Halvorson is a second-year student in the Physician Assistant program at OHSU. After graduation she plans to pursue emergency medicine in Oregon. Her poems have previously been published in Ephemera, Plume and the Iowa Writers Journal.


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