Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Elegance and Horror

     I had a love-hate relationship with the anatomy lab in medical school.  There truly was something almost holy about it: the cadavers floating in preservative had once been living people just like you and me, with families, jobs, sorrows, hopes and dreams. It was a place where you spoke in hushed tones, partly out of reverence for the dead, and partly to keep from inhaling the noxious formaldehyde fumes. Secretly, I was terrified of that room, and I never went in there alone. Aside from the rows of cadavers, there was a huge stainless steel vat which contained about 20 human heads, bobbing around in soupy liquid wearing various mask-like expressions, one of which was still cherry-red from carbon monoxide poisoning. It was absolutely gruesome. To examine a head, you had to fish it out of the vat with your hands, sometimes by the hair, and place the dripping specimen into a plastic basin. On the first day of anatomy lab, we were assigned to a group and a cadaver. We christened ours "Mee-Maw", and got right to work on her. There were seven people in our group; however, only six of us actually ever touched Mee-Maw. A perfunctory glance around the room revealed that each group contained a self-assigned "reader," someone who was clearly afraid of handling the cadavers, but was trying to appear useful. This person typically stood off to the side of the slab with the anatomy dissection guidebook spread open on a small podium, informing the rest of us what organ system we needed to dismember next. I'm not sure how I missed out on that sweet opportunity. Waves of nausea and curiosity washed  over me as I donned my gloves and scalpel for the first time, and began dissecting away. To keep my clothes from being soiled, my husband had given me an old lab coat of his father's to wear, which quickly (and permanently) became stained yellow with human fat.
      If I think hard enough about it, I can still remember the fetid smell which emanated from our cadaver a few weeks into the dissection. Mee-Maw had a developed a serious mildew problem. Since new cadavers are hard to come by, we were sort of stuck with her, and we carried on with our work, some of us concealing our nausea better than others. I couldn't eat meat for months after that. Some folks wanted to abandon Mee-Maw and join another group, but most of us stayed with her and persisted. At the end of each day, we'd line up to wash our hands in the filthy sink. Inevitably, there would be little bits and pieces of fat and tissue, swirling around the drain, getting stuck in the strainer basket. Yuck. I made a point of never touching the countertops, which presumably were also impregnated with human goo. Apparently, none of this bothered the anonymous woman who carried a glossy little Fendi bag into the lab each day,  perching it ever so carefully atop several layers of paper towels on the countertop just to the right of the sink. It was a bizarre juxtaposition of elegance and horror. This woman, and her diminutive purse, always seemed to slip in and out of the lab, escaping identification by me. "Who IS she?", I wondered.
     Months later, I attended a meeting at the home of a classmate who I had not gotten to know very well during that first year of medical school. I don't remember what the meeting was about, but I recall drinking wine and having delicious hors d'oeuvres, and engaging in a wonderful conversation about cooking with the hostess, whose name was Rana. Rana was 10 years older than I, and was stunningly beautiful, as well as articulate and worldly. She was a California girl, who had married an older Italian plastic surgeon when she was very young, and they were now going through a divorce. She spoke Italian fluently, and she and I both shared a passion for cooking. She was a fan of jazz and the arts. Despite having just moved to Macon from Atlanta, her house was already decorated beautifully, appointed with tasteful furniture, objets d'art, and gorgeous black and white photographs of her and her two boys. I marveled at her baby grand piano and her collection of tiny glass bottles, filled with sand from all over the world. The meeting was about to start, so I abruptly ended my self-guided tour. In stopping by the bathroom on the way back, I caught a glimpse of a very familiar object: the Fendi bag, resting on her dresser. In that moment, I realized that she and I would fast become lifelong friends, and indeed, we still are!
Spartacus, me, Rana, and her hubby, Joseph, January 2008
   

12 comments:

  1. Interesting and the perfect doctor post for Halloween! I like the way you became friends with Rana. Nice photo too. But now I can’t stop thinking about those cadavers...LOL!! :)

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    1. Oh Madilyn, the cadavers were SO gross! It was hard to remain reverent at times.

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  2. Who needs Halloween when you have med school? If I ever needed a reminder why I don't think I could have been a doctor, this was it.

    But, at least you got a good friend out of it.

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    1. Joel, I don't know how I would have made it through med school without Rana...it was a friendship which began in the most unlikely of places.

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  3. How appropriate this is for Halloween!! Mee-maw sounds positively gross. That's great that you two made a connection...funny how impromptu run-ins develop life long relationships. I can just invision you in the lab bobbing for skulls!

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    1. Poor Mee-Maw...donated her body to science, and ended up with the heartbreak of mildew. ;-)

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  4. Kris, in high school biology class we were required to cut up a poor and hapless fetal pig, a task I always performed with dread and eyes and nostrils half-closed. I knew at that point I could never be a doctor. I think it's a grand story how you met your friend, Rana, amidst the cadavers and floating heads. A tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.

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    1. Marty, I was too chicken to deal with the fetal pig...somehow, I got a sick excuse and missed out on that. Blech! I don't think I could go back and repeat anatomy lab; it still makes me nauseated to think about it.

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  5. I soooo would've been "the reader." That is, if someone could drag me in there in the first place. I never realized how handy zero medical aptitude could be :) Congrats on getting a wonderful friend and happy halloween!

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    1. Thanks, Gina! I don't know why I didn't think of being a reader. Duh! What a sweet gig. LOL. Happy Halloween to you!

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  6. Talk about a gruesome Halloween tale! I'm not sure I'll ever bob for an apple without thinking of that vat. Yikes!

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  7. This was a post right up my ally. I was taught one simple rule by my long deceased father, he told me once the dead are already dead so no need to be gentle because their days of feeling are way over. However, I could never be a doctor because other people's blood, guts, and brains bug me a bit. Mine, not so much. Great post!

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