Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

July 3, 2012

Med School Culture Shock II

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 4:44 am

So I dove into what should have been an exhilarating exploration of the world’s Second Oldest Profession, but was, because of this thing hanging over me, a blur of classes, labs, and library hours. I always avoided the Dean’s office, constantly fearing a call or note from the little bald man, transmitting a lethal pain as does the vagus nerve, when it conducts to the brain, news of the death of your mutilated heart.

In the evenings, I read my day’s notes, outlined them, re-read them, then underlined the important parts (that is, every line). I sunk into sleep when my eyelid muscles no longer had the endurance to remain open.

In sleep, dreams were intertwined with nightmares. I see my father, shaving at the mirror. He turns to me.

His eyes say, in my silent dream, what I always believe I’d heard years before: “you need to watch over your mother for a few days. I have to go into the hospital for a little test.”

Even in sleep, I feel my gut spasm at the words “a little test.”

Behind the swirling curtains of another dream, I stand at my father’s bedside in a room of white walls, white sheets, white food on a white tray served by an albino nurse.

“I’m fine,” my father smiles at me. “I’ll be home tomorrow. They’re taking real good care of me here.”

I was dedicated, from that day, to being a performer of such miracles for others. A restorer of indestructible and indespensible fathers, when their bodies betray them.

But hovering above each dream scene was the dark gossamer threat of my Draft Board Damocles, my Report for Active Duty date one day closer.

I awoke, all my muscles sore from the constant tension, to face another day, already hopelessly behind in my studying.

II. Our Body

The classical moment in a new Med Student’s life is when he (or she – more on that later) is introduced to his cadaver. My father had told me about how my grandfather acquired his. With a shovel, apparently. At midnight. With a couple of other new Med Students watching for the police while he and his lab partner dug as fast as they could.

In New York in the late 1960’s it was much more civilized. Those who had donated their bodies to science before their demise hung, in a chilled room, suspended with ice tongs by their ear holes. The school’s technician removed them, placed them on tables, and covered them with plastic sheets. Then he leaned into a corner of the lab to watch as new students slowly pulled back the sheet with all the bravery they could fake smeared across their faces.

“There’s something wrong with his skin,” I blurted.

“Her skin,” one of my dissecting partners corrected.

“No breasts,” I corrected him.

“Mastectomies,” he pointed to the dual scars with his steel dissecting probe.

“It’s the chemical that preserves them,” Tom, our not-a-hair-out-of-place Ivy League third partner said. “It turns the skin brownish.”

“Maybe it’s natural,” our fourth partner offered. “Like she’s maybe Puerto Rican or Jamaican or something. Anyone know her name?”

“We aren’t told their real names,” Mr. Professor-of-Medicine-to-be with perfect hair pontificated. “So we’ll have to name her ourselves.”

“Let’s not,” I suggested. “Wow. Look at all the scars on her abdomen. Hope the surgeon left enough parts for us to find.”

And my chest swelled with a familiar sadness as a vision of JFK, his brain all scrambled within a shattered skull, replaced our cadaver for a moment. Another father lost.

No one at our table gasped or puked; all the day’s entertainment was three tables over. Next to the table where four women, their books open, were already identifying anatomic points on their cadaver. Over at the table where the college football player and three other guys had yuked it up loudly, obnoxiously, before they pulled back the plastic sheet. Three of them were now staring at the body of the football player. Three guys in white coats at a Medical School, looking down at their passed-out acquaintance, unsure what to do. We sure had a lot to learn.

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