Eye Contact – Alice Shieh

What brings you in here today?
It’s a question that I’ve rolled off my tongue countless times,
And will continue to ask for many years to come.

Here to get an eye exam and get cleared for boxing
Oh, boxing? Very interesting!
He’s tall and seems strong, definitely built like a boxer.
Staring down at the paper and clipboard in front of me, I start to make my way down the checklist.
Vision problems?
Health problems?
Medications? Family history? Drugs? Alcohol?
Negative negative negative negative.

I remember to slow down.
I pause and lift my head to smile at him,
Searching for mutual eye contact…
The way they teach us in our Communications in Medicine course.
But there is none
He smiles back but it’s as if he is looking
At me and past me all at the same time
Maybe he’s just shy, I think to myself.

It’s time for him to be seen by the resident
Look up, look down
Look left, look right
Look up and down again
Look at me
Look at me
Look at me straight in the eyes
I am, he insists

Has anyone ever told you about issues with your eyes or eye muscles?
Some people say I look at them funny
This is my first time getting an eye exam
The diagnosis? Adult strabismus
Easily fixable, a common surgery, he is told.
Visible relief washes over him
I’ve always felt embarrassed, he admits
I would love to get this fixed

They always say eye contact is important
To connect, and build rapport
That day I learned
It’s powerful enough to also diagnose.


Bio: Alice Shieh is a third year medical student at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. She is originally from Northern California. In her free time, Alice enjoys exploring various ways to express creativity, whether that be through graphic design, writing, or poetry. This poem was inspired by an impressionable experience she had while volunteering at a free vision clinic run by her medical school, an encounter that demonstrated the synergism between the art of history taking and the science of the physical exam.