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