The Call of the Sirens (Part II)
The night before the first day of med school found Charles and I (an engagement ring with the teeny-tiny diamond chip still feeling new on my finger) sitting on the grass in front of the house, both in a fog, feeling as though we were poised together on the edge of a cliff with one foot in the air and the other about to follow. We knew, based on rumor, television and novels, that medical school was a harsh, rewarding, soul-stretching, bankrupting, monster-creating experience. We'd been together for four years (not counting that 4 month split the prior winter where we both lost our senses but fortunately found them again) and knew we were bound together, but weren't sure where we were bound for.
Very scary. Very surreal. Very big debt if I found out that I hated it.
Backtracking, in high school I had a friend, Linda, who was in the majority of my classes. Linda, another friend (Doug), and I all wanted to become doctors and decited to re-unite as members of the class of 1991. Linda, indeed, was there and it was lovely to see her. (Don't know what happened to Doug. I heard a rumor that he went into something with finance but who knows?) Also in class was another high school alum, Essie. Essie had gone off to a nursing program in college but decided that her personality was more in line with that of a doctor rather than being the one following the orders of the asshole doctor. Knowing her, this was clearly the case. Essie was never one to suffer fools lightly nor silently. There was this incident our first year when she told one of our instructors not to be such a "fucking jerk", to his face and in front of several others students. I wasn't there, sad to say, but he was, indeed, a fucking jerk and he was less of one after she pointed it out to him.
That first day was of orientation, where we were herded around here and there, given lists for hundreds of pounds of books (literally, as this was in the pre-internet days), talks about what was expected of the behavior of future doctors (including the unspeakable sin of not paying off one's student loans), bowed, cowed, wowed, and photo-ID endowed.
That last ended up being a lesson I've since taken well to heart. See, it was toward the end of that exhausting first day and one by one we were sat upon this tall stool and had our pictures taken. I had no idea how important this photo was but it was to follow us about, displayed on our chests, attached to paper work, sent off to off-site clinics and so on for 4 years. Being strung out and frankly pooped, I didn't show a sparkly smile, but just sat and gazed back at the camera in what I thought was a non-expression. Nice and benign, neutral, trusty-looking. In short, what came out was a face that looked like a cranky, crazed Charles Manson, with bangs, on a touch of Thorazine. There might also have been drool. If there wasn't there should have been.
The next day started the real deal.
What did the first year of med school involve? In short 8 hours a day, 4+1/2 days a week (Thursday afternoons off for good behavior) of sitting on your ass in solid blocks of lecture after lecture, broken up with lab in the afternoons (sitting at microscopes or standing cadaver-side). The lab afternoons were preceeded with an hour or more of lecture before the actual lab work, just so we'd not lack for sitting and drooling. Evenings, nights and weekends were spent studying.
The first year was learning about 'normal', the second year about 'abnormal'. The first year broken up into courses like gross anatomy, biochemistry, embryology, and organ system after organ system of physiology: cardiac physiology; gastroentestinal physiology; dermatologic physiology; neurophysiology (The worst. THE WORST. I could never get more than 2 pages of the damn neurology read at a time without falling asleep or succumbing to a task like scrubbing the bathroom grout for mental relief) and all the rest, ad nauseum. Exams thrown in liberally, of course. After the first anatomy exam we went out and drank ourselves silly, as was only right. Actually, as you will not be surprised, we usually drank after most exams. The better to dump the old brain cells so that they'd not clutter the pathway for the cramming in of the new information. It was all about passing the tests. Test after test after test.
The lecture hall was one of those amphitheater-type things with the speaker down in the pit and the seats arranged in ascending rows with steps going down the sides. All dark grey cement and exposed floursecent lighting. Think industrial chic without the chic. Cold. Ugly. Hard. And yet you were still able to nod off. Most of the lecturers were deadly dull, primarily because most of them were PhDs with narrow interests in their own narrow fields, such as optic nerve degeneration in the hairless rat. The lectures from the few MDs that presented to us lowly first years were usually a breath of fresh air, primarily because they were so much more practical and gave us a glimpse into what we'd be doing in a few years.
What's that? Tell about the cadavers?
Yes. Gross Anatomy. ('Gross' in this case meaning 'large' as opposed to 'micro' anatomy, a.k.a. 'histology' where we used the microscopes to look at slide after slide of tissue, and used them well, although to be honest, most of it all looked like 'spleen' to me.) They gave us the standard 'treat this gift of a human body with respect' chat and all that as we looked around at each other, some laughing nervously, some green, most a combination of both. We split into teams of 4 to a body: Myself, Linda, another friend from college, David, and Mark, who was going into orthopedics to specialize in knees. He was focused, Mark was. We were told the age of the cadaver and the gender (87 year old female), which wasn't immediately apparent as they were completely encased in hard, white, opaque plastic. They looked like futuristic mummies. They would be our companions for 8 months and we would know them intimately. You have to be amazed at the preservatives. The cadavers literally ended up falling apart as they were dissected to bits, but they never decayed. Scary that.
No one barfed. No one fainted. We started with the chest, and over the months worked down through the abdomen, then the arms, legs, pelvis, ending with the back and finally the head and neck. A fun fact: The vessels had been injected with colored latex, which helped greatly. Unlike a non-preserved body, all the colors become dark, muted shades of tan, dark red, deep eggplant, bright lines of red and blue (the vessels) running through, or the creamy white of the bones underneath. We named ours "Emma" after the feisty Fruit of the Loom underwear ad character popular back in the day. A couple of tables over, some more college friends of mine named their male after our despised college organic chemistry professor, Dr D.
The other thing I remember is that, as anatomy lab ran for 4-5 hours at the end of the day, twice a week, I'd end up famished before the end of each session. I'm not saying that I was craving beef jerky or anything, but it was a bit disconcerting: Scalpel, flesh, extreme hunger pangs. The course was proctored by two professors as well as this professor emeritus who was about 150 years old and looked like this tiny, fat gnome with a cloud of white hair. I think he was Dr S. He was frightenly enthusiastic, academically brilliant and had this way of dissecting something so that everything was clear in the field, but the bits o' human would go flying through the air. He'd end up covered with flecks of tissue all over him, especially around his mouth and you'd have to stand there and listen to him, ignoring the gore. He was an amazing teacher, though, unlike the PhDs. I'm guessing he's still there, unable to die, with all the formaldehyde he's absorbed and inadvertantly ingested over the years.
And, oh, that dizzy smell of formaldehyde drifting over all. We all wore neck-to-shin, long sleeved dark green gowns over our clothes, but that provided little protection from the odor and we had the habit of wearing old grubby things for anatomy lab. At the end, the gowns and tennis shoes were discarded as the smell had irrevocably seeped in.
The antomy exams were pretty brutal, too, first the written part and then down to the cadavers, each with tags and pins indicating what you'd have to identify. My favorite was the question on the final that had a jaw bone (mandible) broken in half, inverted, lying on the chest of one of the cadavers with one of the small slips of ripped muscle end tagged to identify. Seemed pointless to me, that question, as the only time we'd be presented with that in real life would be at the scene of a particularly horrific accident, and if that were the victim's jaw, that'd be the least of their problems-- whether or not if I knew the name of that slip of ripped muscle on the shattered half of their jawbone, now sitting on their chest wall. Nope. Not so practical.
So we went through it all. All 90 of us. And you know what? It wasn't as bad as Charles and I had feared. It was often miserable, always stressful, exhausting, frequently boring (yes! really!) intense (but the least intense of the 4 years), brutal, but it was what you had to do to get to where we needed to go. And often it was truly fascinating and exhilerating and even fun.
And, for the first time in my life, I didn't feel like a freak. For the first time ever, I finally felt that I fit in. That it was OK to be smart and to study hard. I wasn't at the top of the class trying to hide the fact that I was doing well. I wasn't the brain. I was in the middle of the class, a class with cool people and dorks and average-type schmoes and we were all OK. I can't tell you how beautiful that feeling is: to finally belong.
I guess I was where I was supposed to be.