"Incident at Harlem Hospital" by Kendall Johnson



A word from the author: As a trauma therapist I was invited to Harlem Hospital to talk to the ER staff, ambulance crews, and doctors and nurses from the Pediatric Surgical departments, and staff from the Injury Prevention Program. What transpired there still haunts me.



I looked up into the fifty or so faces of medical personnel in the old amphitheater who were looking back at me, waiting. I had been called to Harlem Hospital to address the effects of working closely with all that the streets could bring in, the pointless deaths, the suffering. How they couldn’t help taking home the daily anguish. I was to tell them how they could reach inside for strength to help them hurt less and deliver more. Yet what could I—privileged, white and cocooned—give them that they would find of any use?


double street sign

Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X

locals still call it Lenox


It was time for me to begin. I told them about how this outer mess could trigger their morass within, how they could reach inside for strength to help them hurt less and deliver more. And they told me a few things as well. About needless deaths, children sold, babies baked in ovens by their drug-addled parents, of street corner executions by burning tire necklacing. You couldn’t work at Harlem Hospital without living the images, sights and smells.


seats stretched upward

thousand-yard stares

look back


By noon we had explored the realities of their work, and in the afternoon we would practice new skills. This would be draining. I was already depleted. I picked up my lunch and withdrew to a private office to eat alone and try to find the energy I needed. I forced down a sandwich, ate half an apple, then pushed aside the plate and laid my head on the table. Falling into a half-sleep I watched the images swirl. Feeling despair at the task ahead, I longed for direction. I fell even deeper asleep.


thick walls and doors

street smells and sounds

still carry inside


Visions circled as I slept. I remember the psychic telling me that if she gave me details about my coming work, I’d lose my nerve to do it. I recall my visions of a fountain, a donkey carrying a brace, a race to a well with my father, an oil well geyser, meeting a stranger, being welcomed to battle, being given a black onyx spear with a golden tip. I remembered times in my clinic using the spear to heal, how energy flowed down the spear into pain.


light tingles

passing through

into darkness


In my mind, I find myself back in the amphitheater, looking up. The medics and therapists of Harlem Hospital wait expectantly. This time I reach up with the onyx spear, left to right, top row to bottom, gently touching each on the shoulder. I serve as a conduit, an instrument carrying a current I can feel but need not understand. As I come to each, I sense their need and feel each of them grow warm. As I finish touching the very last person, there is a knock at the office door. “It is time.”




Kendall Johnson’s writing has appeared in such venues as Cultural Daily, Litro, Shark Reef, Ekphrastic Review, and Tears in the Fence. He is an artist as well as writer, and his books include Dear Vincent: A Psychologist and Artist Writes Back to Van Gogh (2019, Sasse Museum of Art), Chaos & Ash (2020, Pelekinesis), Black Box Poetics (2021, Bamboo Dart Press), Fireflies Against Darkness (2021, Arroyo Seco Press), and More Fireflies (forthcoming). A former trauma therapist and on-scene disaster consultant, Dr. Johnson writes and paints in Upland, California.