The Dead Man in My Briefcase


I’m carrying another dead man in my briefcase.
He’s not heavy.
He’s a yellow 4x6 card with a few dry facts.
A date, a time, a gunshot wound, a medical record number.

No name.
No age.
No family contact.
No information on whom to notify.
No personal information.

Another patient arrived with no pulse.
Another broken body surrounded by a dozen trauma team members.
Another death called, a time noted, a request for the body bag.

I ask the head surgeon for a moment of silence.
We are silent.
The detectives have left.
The environmental staff begins cleaning the blood off the floor.
The body has gone to the medical examiners.

He must have had a name, but I never knew it.

Family never arrived.
There is no parent or sister or girlfriend here needing support.
He was just “Trauma Patient.”
He was never admitted.
He was never really in the hospital records.
It is almost as if he were never really here.

There is no need to pass the yellow card on to another chaplain.
I can shred the card.
I can put it in a bin for sensitive data
And it will be gone.

Just like the young black man
whose name I never knew.

I can’t carry the yellow card around forever.
Maybe tomorrow I will get rid of it.
or the next day.

But for now,
I am carrying the dead man in my briefcase
and in my heart.

Rabbi Robert Tabak (RRC '77), PhD, BCC, was a staff chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania from 2001–2015. This poem appeared in the 2015 issue of Stylus: A Medical Humanities Literature and Art Journal. An earlier version of this poem appeared in the December 2014 newsletter of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplain.