I see dead people, an excerpt from In Stitches

An excerpt from In Stitches.

I see dead people.

Eighteen bodies covered with plastic, lying on gurneys. An occasional toe protrudes to verify that beneath the shiny black tarp, a dead person lies.

I smell dead people, too.

Or at least the thick chemical stench of formaldehyde, tearing at my eyes and packing my nose, enough liquid preservative in here to float a yacht. The smell rises from the bodies and from a dozen large clear plastic bins—similar to the type you find at IKEA—lining the back wall of the lab, some stacked on top of each other. The bins contain body parts and organs, all of them cataloged, numbered, and labeled.

We sit at desks in an adjacent classroom, the eighteen bodies lurking behind us, lying in wait. In my lab coat I feel like Igor, the mad scientist’s assistant, but in reality I’m sitting in anatomy class, by reputation the most furiously intense class we will take in first year, maybe in all of medical school, especially since our section is taught by the infamous Dr. Gaw, the most ruthless, unforgiving professor who has ever lived. If you believe in reincarnation, Dr. Gaw has returned from her previous life as Attila the Hun in the form of an eighty-five-year-old nightmare who lives to terrorize us. She walks as erect as a pencil, her skeletal face a frozen fanged scowl resting atop one throbbing purple vein. According to our school catalog, Dr. Gaw has won awards, a trophy case full. To this day I can’t imagine how.

According to Billy, our go-to second-year consultant, who hooked up with a first-year from another orientation group and is now all smiles and helpful when we see him, anatomy is even more of a bear than biochemistry, which, even though I aced it going away at Kalamazoo, is right now kicking my ass. I try to explain this to Shelly. I tell her that med-school biochem is a lot different than college biochem, and I’m happy to share my notes or study with her—my one final feeble attempt to get us alone, where we might resume rubbing our knees together in the hope of progressing upward—but she turns out to be not only a gunner but a first-class ass kisser as well, a lethal double threat, the kind of medical student who takes no prisoners, plays every angle, murders every exam, laughs at every teacher’s joke, lives for extra credit, hangs out with professors before and after class, and along with a cabal of other gunners and ass kissers, scores invitations to their homes for brunches and barbecues and even gets hired to babysit their children. I give up on Shelly. She’s not my type. My type defined as any woman showing a vague interest in me.

At our first class, Dr. Gaw hands out equipment, including latex gloves, goggles, and what I really want, nose plugs, which I stuff into my nostrils, hoping to at least partially deflect the stench. The nose plugs don’t help, so except for gloves, I go commando. I figure I might as well get used to the smell. I’ll have to, if I ever do become a real doctor. Most of the other first- years wear as much protective covering as possible. One guy, a gunner, shows up on the second day of anatomy wearing a hazmat suit. The whole ball and tackle. Goggles and ventilation mask. Dr. Gaw says nothing, but I think I see her scowl flutter, and I imagine her dropping Hazmat’s grade.

Tim and I scramble to find seats together. Tim, I’ve learned by now, has exactly zero mechanical aptitude. A week into medical school, we’ve eliminated the possibility that he will ever become a surgeon. He struggles to pull on his gloves. This first day, I face him and yank

them on for him. Once they’re secure, I turn back and find Dr. Gaw standing over me. She reeks of formaldehyde. She holds a moist body part in one bony gloved hand.

“Dr. Youn.” How the hell does she know my name? “Yes, Dr. Gaw?” “Which valve of the heart am I holding?” Am I glad she said heart. I thought she was holding a liver. I take a shot. “Mitral valve?” “Congratulations.” Do I detect a trace of a Nazi accent? “This is the aortic valve.” She

spits the words at me. “You have the deductive ability of a monkey. I pity your future patients, Dr. Youn.”

She limps away.

Tim whispers, “If it makes you feel any better, I thought it was the small intestine.”

Dr. Gaw suddenly materializes in front of Tim. Where did she come from? It’s as if she stepped out of a fog.

“Do you have something to add to the class, Dr. O’Laughlin?” “Me? No. Not at all. Not at the moment.” “I assumed as much. If you have any reasonable hope of passing this class, I would

suggest that you and Dr. Youn refrain from talking and joking and making fools of yourselves. Oh, and a helpful suggestion. As doctors, you will find it useful if you can distinguish the heart from the small intestine.”

I’m shaken. I’ve never found myself in such unfamiliar territory. Academically—from elementary school through college—I have always excelled. I’m the school scholar, the student hotshot, the freaking valedictorian. Within seconds, Dr. Gaw has trashed all that. To her, I’m the class idiot.

I’m left with two choices. I can shrink away. Or I can bounce back. It takes me two seconds to decide. I am going to dominate anatomy. Starting tomorrow.

Today I’d like to disappear.

Anthony Youn is a plastic surgeon who blogs at Celebrity Cosmetic Surgery and is the author of In Stitches.

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  • http://www.drdialogue.com Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD

    My anatomy partner used to bring a bottle of perfume to class and give our cadaver a liberal dousing at the start of each dissection. Enjoyed your story.

  • soloFP

    Anatomy was unnecessarily hard in Med school. The anatomy profs and TAs grilled us daily, yet none of them were physicians. They made the same comments about future chances of becoming doctors or not. They created a stressful environment that made it often toxic to learn the material. A couple of the profts routinely showed up intoxicated each Friday, but their tenure kept them going. One of the profs dated a married med student.

    Much of the anatomy could be taught with computers. Outside of students who thought they were going to be surgeons, most of us dreaded the hours of dissection. The actual practical tests often involved preserved models or plastic models, as about 1/3 of the cadaver did not maintain preservation and looked like beef jerky by the middle of the year. For primary care, the amount of anatomy used is about 20% of what I actually had to learn. I think much of learning anatomy was a right of passage.

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