by w4l3XzY3

Life, Death, and Humanity, Part I

Our tour guides walked briskly past it on the first day of orientation, but I’m sure all of us took a moment to peek in the gross anatomy lab. I remember seeing four large, square rooms, bright fluorescent lights set into the acoustic tile ceiling like any other classroom. There were large stainless steel sinks against the far walls, with light boxes hung along the side walls. The linoleum-tiled floor of each room was mostly occupied by large, stainless steel dissecting tables, each one surrounded by a handful of stools. The tables were bare and clean, their brushed surfaces dully reflecting the lights above. Being unoccupied as such, the lab looked and felt rather unremarkable. The tour moved on and we didn’t give the labs much more thought. That was on a Tuesday, almost exactly one year ago.

I was walking down the same hallway with a friend on the following Thursday, and we noticed the doors to the labs were propped open. The rooms were equipped the same as they were on Tuesday, except for one thing — each table was fully draped by a large denim cloth, with the unmistakable silhouette of a human — the peak of the scalp, the slight undulation from abdomen to waist, the valley separating the legs from each other — filling out each one from underneath. The difference was stark and somewhat unsettling. The rooms somehow felt quieter, our footsteps duller and less reverberated. I remember smelling the preserving fluid for the first time, the faint burn in my nostrils combined with something that I could only describe as chemical. It was an incredibly solemn place to stand, and I didn’t quite know how to feel. We saw the lab coordinator making his way through another room, so we quickly waved and left.

We were back in there the following Monday, all of us, having changed into scrubs in the locker-lined hallway and found our way to our assigned tables. The labs were cold, of course, and there was a lot of uneasy, friendly chatter as we shook hands and waited for directions. There was a brief convocation (hey, it’s a Jesuit school) followed by a few Powerpoint slides. We were to start by dissecting the superficial (outermost) layers of the back, which meant that our cadavers were currently face-down. The presetation wrapped up, and we were free to start.

Most people know that medical school involves cadavers, and when it comes up in conversation, most people have a notion of how they’d feel about dissecting a human body. Some simply shudder, eyes closed, and come up with phrases like, “I could never do that.” I’ve also seen people lean forward excitedly, saying something more akin to, “that would be amazing!” I had always been firmly in the latter camp, but a certain amount of anxiety did start to build in the moments before we started that day. The butterflies in my gut reminded me that I was about to do something that, while fascinating and definitively medical, was also somewhat macabre and even taboo in some pockets of the world. But that’s all it was, just butterflies. I can’t remember if my hands were steady — I suspect they had a slight tremble — but they grasped the edge of the covering fabric and pulled it back. Underneath the denim was a layer of thick plastic, in order to keep the cadaver moist; under that, a muslin cloth wrapped around the body to retain the preserving fluid against the skin. The hands, feet, and head head were wrapped in their own layers of muslin and plastic, keeping those regions in good shape until we got to them later in the course. But the majority of the body, from the neck down to the legs, was now exposed.

I remember my somewhat anticlimactic reaction at the moment the sheets were pulled back. My eyes widened for just an instant, accompanied by a brief flash of surprise and perhaps fear. But after that, the butterflies faded away, and I felt normal, which was itself rather bizarre to me. I mean, I was standing, with three of my classmates, in front of a dead body. And I was about to cut into that body.

The thing is, like most medical school classes, gross anatomy is very fast-paced. The lab sessions are usually long enough to complete the day’s objectives, but there isn’t much time to look up structures or read through the instructions for the first time. One needs to enter the lab prepared, work efficiently on the cadaver, review along the way, and clean up. There really isn’t enough time to reflect or to dread; you just have to do. And do we did, with a surprising lack of hesitation. Really, after the first cut, the rest became almost mechanical.

It was only outside the lab that we had an opportunity to think about what we were doing. And while I’d love to go into this level of detail on all of them, I’d probably be writing about Gross Anatomy for the rest of the year. Instead, I’m going to hit on some of the highlights from my time in the lab, and do my best to keep the grisly details to a minimum. There are some things I just have to write down, lest I forget them in the hustle of the coming year.

Worth It

(As of today, there are 12 days until classes begin for my second year. I guess the pressure’s on to write what I promised to write, eh?)

I’ve only completed one year of medical school thus far, which sadly puts me much closer to the beginning of my training than the end. But I’m already deep into it — I left my first career in May of 2004, which means that I’ve already devoted three years of time, money, and sweat equity to medicine. Last summer, anyone who asked me whether I’d made a good decision probably received a confused or noncomittal reply. Sure, I enjoyed my post-bacc year, and I was eager to become a physician, but I was still technically a pre-med. I had no way of knowing whether I’d actually enjoy medical school, whether I would complete the year satisfied that I’d chosen the right path for myself, or whether I’d made yet another professional mistake. Well, times have changed. I’m now a full-blown medical student, and I’ve managed to complete my first year without any major crises. So was it worth everything? Did I make the right choice?

The answer, at least this year, is unequivocally yes.

The hours were long. The material, while not tricky, was voluminous and incredibly fast. Some of the classes were tedious, some were interminable, and some felt like they were impossible to understand in the given time. Some of our lecturers were unintelligible, others just incomprehensible. There was a lot of sleeping in class, in the library, and at home with my neck crooked unnaturally over my notes. There was far too little sleep overall. There were some moments of panic.

But there was also an amazing realization. Despite all of the things that med students (sometimes rightfully) complain about, despite the unbelievable demands of our time and energy, I loved almost every day. I was surrounded by people like me, studying topics that fascinated me, imbibing a culture of science and art that I had sought for years. While I liked most of my old coworkers, and made some great friends to boot, I never felt like I belonged in the office. Here, sitting in even the driest of lectures, I am finally an integral part of the fabric. I understand what drives my classmates, and they in turn understand me. This is all the more remarkable when I consider that I’m significantly older and in a completely different social situation from most of them, which separates me from interacting very much with them outside of class. It’s a great feeling, knowing that I belong.

There are some moments that stick out in my mind from last year, some things that I intend not to forget. Things like:

  • Pondering biology, life, and death through Gross Anatomy
  • My reaction to neuroscience — the de-romanticizing of the psyche
  • Feeling like I was gasping for breath, struggling just to pass at times
  • The comical notion that I could take control over my sleep
  • My weird place in the social network of our class
  • The real costs of being a medical student, which barely start with tuition

I will expound on these in the days to come. Seriously, I will. I can’t go into second year with all of this stuff on the back-burner! There are also some mostly-complete posts that I started back in August. They need to be touched up and published as well. But for now, just know this: Going to medical school was the best professional decision I’ve ever made. On a career basis, I don’t regret leaving the consulting world for one second.

Done!

One last buzz from the timer in the anatomy lab, one last mark on my Scantron. As of 3:00 this afternoon, I am officially done with my first year of medical school.

To say that it’s been a busy ten months would be stating perhaps the most obvious of truths. Among the things I neglected was this blog, whose readership almost certainly has gone negative by now. (That’s right — people have managed to unread my blog.) I have a lot of things to share, and perhaps I will finally have the time to share them this summer. Tonight, though, I plan to sleep. Expect more soon.

Last Week

Hello world!

Quandary of the Magi, Part 1

Want to know where I’m going to school in the fall? Read on!

Nearly everyone in this country with a high school education is familiar with O. Henry, and, by extension, his most famous short story: The Gift of the Magi. I’ve read a few of his other stories and I find them mostly forgettable, perhaps dated beyond their relevance. Magi, however, stays with me and continues to pop up in my thoughts. There’s something about that perfectly ironic ending, poignant to the point of melodramatic, but also sincere and heartwarming. I recently picked up an old compendium of O. Henry stories and re-read the story. What caught my attention this time was not the plot but the final paragraph, in which the author takes his time to explain the title. He suggests that Jim and Della did, in fact, give each other the perfect Christmas gifts that night. The leather strap for a pawned watch, the tortoise shell combs for tresses now gone — these essentially worthless items were symbols of the priceless gifts they did bestow on each other. When O. Henry mentions the “greatest treasures of their house,” I believe he means their willingness to give up their most prized belongings and beliefs for the sake of their cherished loved one. The immaterial, invaluable spiritual gift of sacrifice is the true gift of the magi, perhaps the most important ever given.

One problem I have with Magi is that the its perfect ending is almost never duplicated in real life. The story is made all the more poignant to me because, in real life, both parties seldom share the combined joy and anguish of the “O. Henry ending.” And so would it be with the medical school decision, one that has taken far longer and consumed far more of our patience and goodwill than Kim or I expected. The question was not whether a sacrifice was necessary, but rather, who would make it? Who would compromise their personal beliefs for the sake of the other, and who would benefit from the sacrifice?

This August I will enter the Georgetown University School of Medicine, class of 2010.

I withdrew the last of my other acceptances on May 12, sliding in just under the AAMC deadline of the 15th. This means that the decision process took somewhere around seven months, blowing past the original deadline of January 1 and just about every other deadline we set after that. I had originally planned to explain what happened in those seven months at the top of this entry, but it ended up being incredibly long and perhaps too boring for people who just wanted to know the ending. I’ve decided instead to put this up now and post the second part of the story in the near future. For now, though, break out the blue and grey. Blair bleeds Hoya blue! (But not before he bleeds Big Red. Or something like that.)