The End of the Beginning

Cambodia 449

The top half of our cadaver was removed a few weeks ago. We have spent what seemed an interminable amount of time on the legs. The legs have seemed boring after the face, heart, brain. And yet, more than anything else they carry our burdens…

Finals were gearing up. We were getting panicky. All of us just want to be done so we can get back to the books. Cram. Cram. Cram.

Our last assignment was to bisect the pelvis.

Two teammates held the stiff legs steady, up in the air. Using the hacksaw I worked my way through the colon. Poop smeared across everything, requiring the hose to clear the field.

Last up was the manhood. I had to cut the penis in half lengthwise. Jokes about Lorena Bobbit caught unsaid on the tip of my tongue. 

Is it fitting that the woman in the group gets to do this? 

I laughed quietly. Someone looked up at me, but their eyes held no judgement. We had all gotten used to the odd looks on each other’s faces, the giggles that seemed out of place. No one asks for an explanation. The truth of what we are thinking would be too… uncomfortable.

And then, we were done. Everything was piled into black body bags to be reunited with the other halves and then on to cremation or burial. Waiting families. The bags looked odd… half full, lumpy in all of the wrong places.

Some stop to whisper prayers: Rest in peace, Fred. Safe journey, Lenore. May you find peace, Harry. Thank you.

Many cross themselves, remembering the ghost stories told by our professor, the fellow who dug around in the cadavers and never wore gloves.

We all know we will never be the same again, haunted in one way or another. We are not the men and women who entered this room on the first day all those months before. We have seen horror, been elbow deep in it, and survived. 

We survived.

I survived.

I can do this…

There is a collective moment of silence out of respect for these people, for the knowledge they have shared with us. 

Then we file out.

The lights are turned off.

The doors are locked.

I change back into street clothes and throw away my scrubs in the large gray bin outside the locker rooms. The others I will burn later.

I walked away. 

Or so I thought.

To this day, as I am examining an abdomen, I see an overlay of my cadaver’s insides. Liver here, kidneys there. I can see them. I can feel them. I carry that man and his body with me wherever I go.

And the smell? 

The smell will stay with me forever.

Facing Forward

IMG_8136The ghostly shape of a head loomed in front of us, wrapped in a white shroud. A nose was vaguely recognizable.

Two of my tank mates were conspicuously absent today. In fact, looking around the room about 1/2 the class was missing. 

Pansies. It is only a face.

We looked at each other and sighed.

He shrugged.

I broke the silence. “It’s now or never, I guess.” He nodded.

“If you lift his head I can get the gauze off,” he offered.

I grabbed the fellow’s head and lifted it off the shiny metal surface. This was more challenging than one might think because the body was as stiff as a wooden plank and the head was as heavy as a block of concrete.

My partner started unwinding the gauze. It went on and on and on, gathering into a fluffy white cloud on the remains of the previously dissected chest.

Eventually smudges and discolorations started showing through the layers where body fluids had soaked through.

“Look, you are going to have to hurry. I can’t keep this up much longer!” My voice sounded panicky because my arms were shaking like rubber bands.

“Just a second! Almost… done!”

I shifted my fingers to let him unwind the last bit of guaze. Suddenly, the head slipped through my hands and hit the metal slab with a sickening thud. 

It bounced. 

Bounced? How could even that be possible?

I cringed. 

Oh, God. What have I done? Did I break anything?

Blank eyes were staring back at me through opacified corneas. 

At least he didn’t look mad.

I took a step back. A hint of five o’clock shadow played on his chin. The hair had been shaved off of his scalp, a 1/4 inch of gray stubble was all that remained.

He looked like my father.

Head Games

IMG_2965The sound of a dozen buzzing bone saws beat into my head, roaring through my ears. Sound waves bounced off of tiles and ricocheted off of the metal tanks, magnifying themselves until the sound was downright painful.

“Earplugs. I need earplugs,” I muttered.

“What?” My tank mate asked, almost yelling.

“Nothing!” I yelled back. “Nothing…”

The smell of charred bone permeated the lab and all of the shiny metal surfaces, even the floor, were littered with the dust and fragments of skulls.

By this point in the game, we were not even phased. None of us. Another day in gross anatomy.

We had managed to dissect the scalp off of our cadaver and it was peeled down over what remained of his eyes and ears. I was wielding the bone saw, ready to attack the calvarium.

I wore a mask, trying not to breath in the dust.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is carried in these tissues. They didn’t tell anyone about that. But I know. Just what I need. A prion disease. Madness. Death. That would be fun a fun way to waste $100,000.

I said a little prayer, then got to it.

Cutting through a skull is a lot like trying to cut a piece of ripe fruit in half. The cut line never seems to meet up on the other side and it is always messier than expected.

Eventually it was done.

I grabbed a pair of forceps and wedged the handle end into the cut, twisting, moving around the cranium until the top came off.

There was the brain peeking out over the top. Not a single nick on the gray matter. 

Success!

We all paused for a moment out of reverence.

The holy grail.

A few extra slices with the scalpel and I was holding a human brain in my hands.  We passed it around.

It was heavier than I expected.

This was what all of our hopes and dreams, memories and thoughts become in the end? A lump of dull, bland, lifeless mush? 

And if you are lucky, someone will cradle it in their hands and learn from it.

I decided then that someday my body would lie here. In this room or one like it somewhere else. 

I want to become immortal.

Meet the Cadaver

cambodia2 017The acrid smell of phenol burned in my nostrils. I was already familiar with the smell from my days of doing chromosomal mapping as an undergrad but it had never been this strong. 

I imagined the nose hairs cringing.

Twenty eight silver tanks were lined up in two rows up and down the long room. So clean. So bright. So cheerful.

The odor was overwhelming. A classmate down the way asked to be excused but did not quite make it to the door before passing out.

I had been assigned to tank number one along with three other souls. Strangers, really. I knew them about as well as this cadaver.

We eyed each other suspiciously.

Someone turned the crank, the shrouded body rose up…. There was no soupy quagmire. Not at all what I expected given the fact it was called a tank…

I busied myself organizing the dissection atlas to the appropriate pages. 

If I don’t make eye contact, they won’t ask me to do it.

“You go first.” A hoarse whisper.

“No. YOU go first.” A loud whisper back.

Silence.

Someone elbowed me hard in the ribs.

I looked up.

Three sets of eyes stared back at me. They were looking at me to make the first cut.

Why me? 

What the hell?

Someone held out a bright, shiny scalpel. I took it, hesitating. It felt so heavy. Slippery. Cold.

Our cadaver was face down on the metal slab. This was nice. I was not yet ready to see his face. 

We were to start with the back, peeling the skin off to reveal the musculature underneath. Eventually we would trace the nerves and muscles on their routes to the spine.

I slid the blade down the dead center of his back, directly over the spinous processes. The line was surprisingly straight considering I was shaking like a leaf inside.

Don’t let them see you nervous.

I half expected blood to come welling up but there was none. 

Of course there was none… Silly!

Nervous giggling slipped out of my mouth as I tried to work the skin back. It was much harder than it looked. My tank mates tried to offer helpful suggestions.

Feeling a presence behind me, I looked over my shoulder to see one of the anatomy professors standing there.

He rolled his eyes and sighed.

“You newbies don’t know jack.”

Taking the scalpel from my hand, he cut a slit at the top corner of the skin, stuck his finger though the hole, and used it to pull back as he expertly filleted the cadaver’s upper back.

“That is how it is done.”

He handed the scalpel back to me, winking. 

He was not wearing gloves! This man had just touched a dead body and he was not wearing gloves.

Suddenly, I was lightheaded.

Deep breath. Focus, damn it!

I passed the scalpel to the fellow across the tank. “Your turn.” He nodded acceptance. I was relieved.

The smell followed me home. Even a shower could not wash it off. Two showers later and it still seemed to well up from my pores.

Death.

So this is what I am going to be fighting? 

I felt terribly inadequate.

The Haunting

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It was a full moon.

Always a full moon.

She whispered the story to me between labored breaths as I held her wrinkled hand. The window was cracked open, ready for her soul to depart, but she could not have peace. Not yet. Not if it meant her secrets died with her.

The story. 

Moonlight. Night air.

The haunted hotel. 

The cat that hissed at her as she walked past.

When he said, “I just need to fuck you,” it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her.

She wanted to leave, to experience love on her own terms, not his. Instead, she did what he asked. She did not want to lose him. He instructed her. Constructed her. Taught her how to move, what to say. A world away.

It was painful. 

But she loved him.

She still loved him.

He had been famous. Powerful. Brilliant.

She was not.

But she could bask in his glow, couldn’t she?

So she did.

He made her feel transparent with his eyes, his words, his hands. 

A ghost.

Then, love could not cover up the pain. Not anymore. The bruises were real, even if she was not. 

She stopped. But it wasn’t the end. Not even hardly.

Here on her deathbed, alone among the tubes and wires so many lifetimes later, she told me her one regret:

That her heart still cried out his name.

Lucille 

Black and white shadowed lace curtains.
Sitting on the couch late at night, as the smell of phenol sought escape from my pores, I slammed the Netter Atlas shut.

Done. I was done.

My brain could take no more. The exam the next day had already been passed or failed. Any further cramming I attempted to do was not likely to benefit.

Still, I knew sleep would not come.

I grabbed the television remote. The remote. It was a joke, really, as my apartment was so tiny I could sit on the couch and prop my feet up on the TV table on the opposite wall.

The screen flickered then glowed.

A voice spoke to me….

“Call the psychic network, now! Only $9.95 for five minutes. Plus $1.99 for each additional minute.”

I laughed to myself. All of those suckers out there…

But wait.

I could call. Find out how I would do tomorrow. Maybe then I could sleep. That wouldn’t take long. Five minutes, max. Well worth the money for some sleep.

The purse mocked me from the end of the worn pea green sofa. My credit card was nestled safely inside. The cordless phone was on the table by the TV. All within an easy reach.

Ah… What the hell.

A dial tone. Ringing. A click but no one answered.

“Hellooooo….. ?” I said tentatively.

“Hold please as I connect you to Madame Larkin.”

Pleasant hold music.

“Good evening.” The voice was airy, like she had been smoking something illegal. I cringed, embarrassed at myself. “What can I help you with?” 

Oh, well. My ten dollars was spent even if I hung up now. I decided to get my money’s worth. I sat my watch in front of me, keeping an eye on the time.

“Perhaps you can tell me?” I sniggered. Fatigue and stress make me snarky.

Silence.

More silence.

Damn it! The woman was trying to drag this out to maximize her charge. Just as I was about to hang up, her voice returned. This time it was commanding. “I see 4-5 people dressed in blue pajamas hovering around a young woman. Lots of cold metal. I see a blade. A knife perhaps? But she is already dead.”

What?!!!!

My cadaver, we named her Lucille, had been young. We wear blue scrubs. My heart was beating a bit faster as I realize that I was leaning forward in my seat.

“Do you say this to everybody?”

“No. The woman told me. By the way, she says her name is not Lucille.”

“What did you say?”

“Her name is not Lucille. It’s Amy.” She said it so matter of factly. “I see a lot of paintings…”

The medical school was in the arts district, surrounded by two world class art museums. Was she tracing my number? Doing a google search for my name? How would she know the name we gave the cadaver? My tank mates and I were the only ones who knew that!

“How did she die?” It was a detail she could not possible know. Hell, I didn’t even know.

Silence.

“Look, lady. How did she die?”

“Car accident.”

I hung up on her, relieved. Car accident was not possible. Lucille’s body did not have any visible trauma.

My eyelids felt heavy.

I slept with the lights on.

The next day, after the exam, I told a classmate about my exchange with the psychic, someone I could trust to not blab about the whole humiliating experience. She agreed the story was terribly strange, but her curiosity was piqued. It took quite a lot of cajoling to get me to agree to relate it all to someone who could vouch for the veracity of the “psychic”.

We found the head of the anatomy department, an old chubby fellow with a stringy comb over, and told him the story. He laughed it off, which made me feel quite a lot better.

The next day, as my team was standing around the huge silver tank, staring a Lucille, I realized I could not cut. It was my day, my turn in the rotation. I just couldn’t do it.

“Someone else is going to have to take the knife!” No one moved. “Please, people?” I begged.

In a few seconds the professor was standing at the door to the lab, trying to catch my eye. He motioned me into the hallway. He seemed genuinely excited.

“We don’t get names, only initials. So I cross referenced female bodies with the first initial ‘A’ and age between 20-40 who had trauma listed as cause of death. There is only one here, your cadaver.”

Oh, God. 

I am haunted. I will have a cadaver haunting me for the rest of my life now! I searched my memories, frantically making sure I had not done anything remotely disrespectful. Nothing. Except cut her!

Oh, God!

“Have you had this sort of thing happen before? What do I do?” I hoped for some sage bit of advice. He had been doing this for decades. Surely this was not the first ghost story he had come across.

Surely.

His unhelpful shrug did not help…

Polio

486There were more victims of polio than just those who were struck down with the disease…

I did not realize that today was World Polio Day until I saw Elyse’s post yesterday.

“Mommy!” my daughter wailed. Her voice carried through the clinic. “Why are you making me gets shots? I don’t want shots! Please, please don’t let her give me shots…” She looked at me as if I had betrayed her as tears poured down her four year old face. 

“Remember how grandpa has to use a wheelchair and crutches and leg braces because he had polio?”

She nodded, pausing her sobbing for a moment.

“This is so you don’t have to get sick like that.”

“Oh.” She wiped the tears from her face. There was a resigned sigh and a little hiccup. “Ok, mommy. I’ll be brave.”

And she was.

Humanity

IMG_5304I had an attending in residency who in addition to his medical degree also had a Ph.D. in psychology. He always said, “Everything… every action… boils down to the desire for sex, money, or power.” His point was that even if something appears altruistic on the surface, it never really is. There is always secondary gain. This was hardly a groundbreaking statement, I suppose, but I had not thought about the world on those terms before and I have not been able to look at the world in the same way since.

Cynical? Yes.

BUT, isn’t it reassuring to know that we are all on the same playing field? We are all human. We all have the same weaknesses, struggles, core desires. 

We are all flawed.

House Calls

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Where the hell am I?

I should have stopped to ask for directions but I was on an unmarked dirt road and the only sign of life was an electrified fence with two signs: One said, “No Trespassing!” The other said, “Protected by Smith and Wesson.” I have lived around these sorts of people all my life. They really DO have guns and they are NOT posting about them to be funny…

(This was before GPS changed my life.)

Waiting in the car for a few more minutes in an attempt to gather courage did not really help. I gave up and hopped out, slinging the giant red leather computer bag with all of my equipment over one shoulder. I pushed open the gate with a sturdy stick just in case. Getting electrocuted before I even introduced myself would have been awkward.

How could this be the right place? 

She was so sweet and kind when I saw her at the office. She had begged me to see her mother, to get her on hospice. They had to have a doctor’s order, but there was no way she could get her to the office and I could not write an order for someone I had never seen.

I trekked up the driveway. It was littered with debris. Tires. Half of a car. Rusted metal oil drums. Sweat started to run down my back. Was it the heat? I had goosebumbs…. Why did I ever agree to this? I don’t DO housecalls.

“Never again!” I muttered under my breath.

As I approached the house, which was in an advanced state of disrepair, a large dog began a deep, gutteral bark/howl and threw himself against the door. He sounded BIG. 

At least the snarling brute was on the inside. 

For now.

I tried the doorbell. No sound. I knocked. No response. I knocked again, louder. Still nothing. As I was turning to walk away, there was a series of noises that signaled a lock being turned. Then another. And another. One more. The door cracked open. 

The wrinkled eye peering warily through the crack, just above the door chain? I recognized it. Thank God! I breathed a sigh of relief. 

I WAS in the right place after all.

“Give me a minute to lock up Bruce,” she said, closing the door again.

Shouting, scrabbling, and more growling ensued. Then I heard the door chain being removed and the door opened all of the way.

“Sorry. Since Frank died, I have to be careful.” She leaned in close and whispered, “There are people who would rape someone like me…”

I was ushered across the matted shag carpet through the entryway. Her mother was lying in a hospital bed in the living room, TV blaring. A pile of angular bones and skin. Advanced dementia. 

I calculated her age. She was 98.

“She barely eats.” 

I started to examine her. She groaned as I shifted her arms and legs looking for pressure sores. There were none. She was well cared for.

I paused to survey the cluttered surroundings. 

There were dozens of breathtakingly beautiful paintings tacked up, covering the walls from floor to ceiling. Landscapes. Portraits. 

“Who did these?”

“She did.”

Suddenly, the woman in the bed was no longer the wordless body with the thinning white hair, unseeing eyes, and skin that hung off of her like speckled drapery. She was an artist. Her voice was all over these walls.

And that is why I love house calls. No one is ever who you expect them to be. 

Tentacles

 Hotdog octopus 
My kids don’t get hotdogs very often but when they do they think it tastes like octopus. 

Not sure why they would think that…

(I first did a version of this post last year. It still makes me giggle every time I see this photo. Sometimes you have to choose between healthy and survival. Choosing survival is OK.)