Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

August 30, 2012

Med School Culture Shock VI

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 7:40 pm

VI. Our Isolation, Invaded

A few weeks into the first semester, with mid-term exams looming like Godzilla over our little Manhattan Med School, the bald Dean took the podium again.

“Yesterday,” he seethed, “some students” (he almost spat this word) “from this Medical School walked down Fifth Avenue in a demonstration. A political demonstration.”

We all glanced left, then right.

“Now, I admit,” he admitted, “That you have the right to express yourselves. Even when you’re wrong. Very wrong. But you do NOT have the right to wear white coats with the school’s insignia on it. You do NOT.”

We were all looking only forward now. All looking innocent. Who would risk his medical school career doing that? I wondered.

“It was Ralph,” John later told me as we all buzzed about it. “Some anti-war demonstration downtown.”

“That’s a hell of a risk,” I shook my head.

“No kidding. For the next four years the only places you’ll find ME are in class, in lab, and in the library,” he said as he turned toward the library.

That afternoon, in Bio-chem lab, I leaned toward Ralph and asked him.

“Yep. I was there. So were some other students and even some faculty,” he added. “And people from every other Med School in town.”

“Aren’t you afraid they’ll throw you out? You’re risking your entire career.”

He looked at me a long time with his easy, natural smile.

“Don’t you think our involvement in Viet Nam is immoral?”

I waited for him to say more. But he was done, apparently.

“That’s for other people to decide. In Washington. My job, right now, is to get through Med School. Without flunking out or getting drafted.”

“If you do get drafted, what will you do?”

“Whadda you mean, ‘what will I do?’ It’s not like I’d have a choice. They’d order me to go, and I’d have to go.”

His smile, soft and gentle as it was, bore into me like a blowtorch. “You don’t have to do anything. You – all of us – choose what to do. Choose to support the war or choose not to…”

I snorted derisively.

“As someone who cares about people’s health, I’ve made my decision. Don’t you think war is bad for people’s health?”

“Sure. So’s smoking. But I’m not gonna quit ‘til I graduate and neither is anyone else,” I snapped. “Back to work.”

From the corner of my flask-focused eyes, I watched Ralph carefully remove his jacket and slide into his lab coat. Dylan. That’s who he looks like. Bob Dylan.

Then my brain was assaulted by “The Times They Are a – Changin.” That really pissed me off.

I don’t care about Changin’ Times and neither should any of us. Just study. Just become a doctor.

I tried to bump Dylan out with a different tune:

I said I’m gonna mix it up right here in the sink
I’ll slip it in his wine to cover up the bad stink

But Dylan wouldn’t shut up and it was all Ralph’s fault. I felt a really powerful need for a Marlboro, but I was trapped in lab. I tried to fit a glass tube into the rubber stopper of a flask. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone – – – It wouldn’t go. So I pushed a little harder. Don’t criticize what you can’t understand – – – The glass tube snapped, the flask shattered, my Bunsen burner sizzled out.

“A little frustrated, are we?” the professor’s voice clawed against my neck like ice water.

My impulse was to whirl, slash his face with the broken shard of flask, then to slit Ralph’s throat. The fact that I’m telling you this story is your clue that I did neither. I did something else. More accurately, something else happened to me.

I began to laugh. I realized it was inappropriate, but I couldn’t quit. I began to slide to the floor, laughing so hard my abdominal muscle began to spasm. I stumbled, still laughing, out of the lab, down the hall, into a bathroom. A laugh room. The stupid pun made me laugh all the harder.

It took half an hour until I was able to stop it. A handful of my fellow students stood at the bathroom door, staring down at me.

“You OK?”

I stood up, smoothed out what wrinkles I could in my lab coat and said. “Yeah. I feel better.”

“What caused that?” John asked, very concerned. I could imagine him calling the psych unit.

“Don’t know,” I shook my head. “Too much library, maybe.”

* * *

Now, the hippocampus is important, but hidden deep in the brain. The visual cortex is crucial to what makes us human, but is all wrinkled into strange shapes. The ‘Tahl-a-moose’ as our Neuroanatomy prof pronounced the Thalamus is about as basic as a brain can get, but is impossible to differentiate visually from surrounding brain tissue. These, and about seven hundred other structures make up the human brain. And, they would also make up my final exam in Neuroanatomy. Which course was I most likely to flunk? It was a race between Physiology and Neuro. So I called my parents to tell them I wouldn’t be home for Christmas. I spent the week in the library. And I wasn’t alone in there, either.

“If I’m gonna flunk out of Med School, it’s gonna be next week,” I confided in John. No need to worry about next semester.”

“Aw, you’ll do fine,” he said in his Polly-Anna way. He’d bolster anyone. He’ll probably be a great doctor. “Just try not to do that laughing thing again, okay?”

“Laughing? At Neuroanatomy? There is definitely no synapse in the human brain that connects those two processes.”

The sun rose on January sixth. That may not have been news to most of the world, but it was a major miracle in my life and helped me go a long way toward understanding that Resurrection phenomenon the priests and nuns had been trying to explain to me.

Sunrise illuminated the 8-1/2 by 11 sheet on the bulletin board declaring that I had, unbelievably, made the Dean’s list that first semester.

“How’d you do?” Marshall asked me with his Zappa voice.

“I passed,” I said in a very long exhalation.

“Me too. One semester down and seven to go!”

“Actually,” I smiled broadly, “It’s all downhill from here.”

“How do you figure?”

“Now I know I can do it.” And I went away whistling.

Four hadn’t made it, and were gone. That news spread rapidly.

“Wonder if Ralph’s one of them,” I mused to John.

He looked at me with a cocked eyebrow. “Why’d you say that?”

“Well, if he’s not downtown doing demonstrations, he’s off at meetings about getting more Black and minority students into Med School. Not spending all his time studying, you know?”

John shook his head. “Straight A’s,” he pronounced. “Dean’s List.”

“Hm-m. So maybe it pays to broaden your horizons.”

“Not me. I got a job at the library, so I’ll be there until eleven every night. And I get paid for it!”

“Lucky you,” I said probably way too half-heartedly.

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