Getting My Feet Wet

Warning: What follows is a fairly gruesome presentation of a medical school experience. Worse, I think, than gross anatomy. You have been warned…

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“We were told this fellow ate dinner with his family, then went upstairs and shot himself in the head.”

The woman in pink scrubs was covered with a black plastic apron, blue knee high elasticized plastic booties, black gloves, a mask with face guard, and white bouffant surgical cap.

“One of my jobs is to make sure the story really happened the way we were told. So let’s check out the stomach contents.”

She lifted up the organ from the abdominal cavity and slit it open with a flourish for effect. Undigested spaghetti spilled forth onto the metal table with a splat and splatter.

“Well, it would appear that he did indeed eat.” Using a sprayer on the end of a hose, she swept the bits of pasta down the table where it disappeared.

It had resembled a tangled mass of mealworms.

Five of my fellow students were here with me at the medical examiner’s office, watching this autopsy. We were dressed similarly, surreptitiously gauging each other’s reactions through our masks and face shields. The fellow on the slab before us was missing the top half of his head and face. Bits of jagged flesh and bone peaked out here and there. There did not appear to be any bits of brain left.

I stared at the spaghetti as it disappeared, thinking that he could not have enjoyed it. To have been upset enough to put a gun into his mouth, any food he had tried to eat would have been tasteless at best. I could feel the lump in his throat that he would have had to swallow around, the feeling of food stuck in his chest.

I wondered why he had bothered to eat anything at all? Was it his favorite meal, intended to be his last? Was he trying to keep up pretenses?

Would he have used the gun if he had known his naked body would be dissected under the watchful eye of a room full of students, all of his secrets laid bare before us? Was he somewhere in this room, unseen, watching these proceedings as his organs were removed one by one, weighed and catalogued?

Then the smell of the stale spaghetti wafted its way across the room to me, triggering a memory.

I had eaten spaghetti myself the night before.

My stomach knotted. I could feel sweat beading up on my forehead. I bit hard on my tongue to focus my attention elsewhere until it passed.

The medical examiner was chatting, nonchalant as she deftly sewed up the Y incision with thick, black suture. Did I even hear what she said? It did not register. Something about plans for the weekend, a joke about spaghetti…

I filed out of the room with the others, shedding booties and aprons and masks as we went.

Pathology would not be my specialty. Ever. I did not want to become numb to this. But I could not begrudge this woman her coping mechanism, either. This was how she stayed human, doing a job day after day that was horrifying but necessary.

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20 thoughts on “Getting My Feet Wet

  1. Very well-written post. I especially like the thought process about whether the decedent could have enjoyed his last meal knowing what he was about to do. I wonder if the other medical students had similar thoughts, or did they simply focus on the procedure being done? So many of us forget that doctors are people, too.

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    • We don’t really talk about those kinds of things much to each other. At leadt not in my experience 17 years ago. It is pretty personal, how we each experience it. I have only really started pulling out each of these experiences and examining them now that I am blogging. They flit in and out of your mind routinely but truthfully you don’t spend much time with them after you process them the first time. They get tucked away in a little envelope in the virtual file cabinet…

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  2. For a moment I was standing there with you, watching the spaghetti bits floating away . . . I wondered how well he had chewed. Odd thought to have, don’t you think? Your memories of this time are poignant and vivid.

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    • Definitely odd, the things one thinks about! And the detail I have remembered surprised me but I could not remember if the spaghetti went down a drain or into a trough area to be thrown away after… I spent quite a bit of time wracking my brain over it!

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  3. I respect your commitment and willingness to share these memories. I don’t think many understand what it takes to become a professional in the medical field. Your experiences would make good reading material for those entering medicine.

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  4. I think its the humanity in the descritpions which get me the most. I have only ever attended three autopsies – and I was fortunate that they were ‘fresh’ ones. I wasn’t sure if I could handles someone who had been in the water for long – of if they had been found after a period locked up during one of our summers here. Perhaps I’m simply a chicken, but a realistic one.
    I find your post fascinating as you put your thoughts down so succinctly – the things I would have wondered too. Why eat if you intend to commit suicide? Did he realky think about it at all beforehand or, is it always a spur of the moment act? Whihc it obviously can’t be since some people put so much thought into how they are going to ‘do this.
    The most prominent thought I still have is the reaction to my ‘fellow observers’. The smell of eucalyptus – so overpowering I cannot stand it to this day. It seems odd to say I ‘Like” the post – perhaps I should say I like the way you have written it….. thank you,
    Ciao, Susan

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  5. I’m surprised I made it all the way through this. There are many jobs that exist where we all think we couldn’t do it, but are grateful someone else can. I add this to my list. Your thoughts are where mine were going…..

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  6. I had a very similar realization about the possibility for forensic pathology as a residency choice when I had to watch a couple autopsies in med school. The case I saw was someone who died of hepatitis, so everything was yellow and smelled stale. I knew I couldn’t do it for a career after that. Your spaghetti experience sounds much more visceral and noxious, I think. Either way, I’m glad there are some people who find that a tolerable career, so I don’t have to do it!

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  7. Hmmm. I remember those days….. We had to watch five, one of mine happened to be our neighbour’s kid who hung himself. It was not pretty. Actually, I have to fix up people who try to kill themselves with a gun under the chin, and survive. THAT is definitely NOT pretty.

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