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I was a Microbiologist

By Joan Mazza


Back then we autoclaved all the Petri plates

and specimens in orange biohazard bags.

Back then we autoclaved all the specimens

and used petri plates in orange biohazard bags.

Heat and pressure killed every organism so we didn’t

send salmonella, shigella, and anaerobes that smell

like death’s rot to be incinerated, so no one

could be infected along the way.

The scent of that vaporized mix permeated

the lab, wafted back to chemistry and pathology

and forward toward blood bank and reception.

Techs dropped specimens on my counter: sputum,

urine, pleural fluid, blood cultures in sturdy round bottles.

“You stink, Joan. What are you cooking?”

“Pee soup.”


Drawing blood in the cardiac unit at 6 AM

was more my style. Behind the privacy curtain,

I slapped a man’s arm to raise the vein.

“Aren’t you pretty and perky this morning!”

“I’m a morning person.”

“Me, too, love.”

I patted his arm harder before inserting the needle.

At the sound of flesh on flesh, his roommate

called from the other side of the curtain,

“I want to be next!”

“Sorry, I don’t have a slip for you.”

“I have one for you, honey!”


The pathologist called me in, his face pretend-stern,

handed me the report slip that said,

“Normal respiratory flora,” with my initials.

I frowned my question to him.

He pointed to the source— a vaginal swab.

“Well,” I conceded without smiling,

“I guess that’s possible.”


Bacteria and parasites all day.

Thirty years later, I can still write

the phrases that filled my days.

“Urine— Less than 10,000 orgs/ml,

Pseudomonas aeruginosa,”

and “Clean spinal tap on gram stain—

No organisms seen.”

And the memorable culture from the patient

whose name I can still pronounce,

along with his budding Cryptococcal meningitis.


That last year, before I put my uniform shoes

and my license in the trash, the AIDS patients

arrived. No more pipetting urine by mouth.

To draw blood, we wore latex gloves. I put them on

and had my first hot flash at thirty-five.

AIDS rushed in on a wave, the foreign bodies,

thin, black skin on white sheets, staring out

at me like a National Geographic photo.

Standing over their beds, I tried not to inhale,

didn’t want to breathe the same air.


Joan Mazza worked as a microbiologist and psychotherapist, and taught workshops on understanding dreams and nightmares. She is the author of six self-help psychology books, including Dreaming Your Real Self (Penguin/Putnam). Her poetry has appeared in Potomac Review, The Comstock Review, Prairie Schooner, Adanna Literary Journal, Slant, Poet Lore, and The Nation. She lives in rural central Virginia, where she writes, reads, and cooks, surrounded by oak and beech trees.


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