I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Most physicians can trace back and recall their first patient. For some, it is a clinical encounter the third or fourth year of medical school. The more creative may point to their cadaver during first year anatomy and nod knowingly. My first patient was a mouse. Or shall I say a group of them?
My freshman year of college, I volunteered in the lab of a prominent endocrinologist and studied a new drug to reverse the course of type 1 diabetes. We monitored genetically bread, non obese, diabetic mice. Every day we would reach into their cage and grab them as they scurried about. Then we would rub their bellies inducing urination, swab the urine, and test for glucose. The unlucky creatures with a positive urine test needed to have blood drawn. The thing about mice is that they don’t have obvious vessels like you and I. In order to get a drop of blood, we had two choices: Either cut a portion of the tail or tap the choroidal plexus behind the eye. The latter approach, while more brutal, was less maiming.
I would take a swab and dip it in ether. The swab would be applied to the mouses nose inducing anesthesia. The tough part, while applying pressure to the orbit causing the globe to pop out of the socket, I would slip a pipette behind the eye and turn until blood shot up the tube. Then, if we were lucky, the mouse would wake up. If not, we used our fingers to compress the chest performing mouse CPR. Those mice proven to have diabetes would be randomized to two separate groups. One would get the experimental injection while the other would get placebo.
I passed many days and weekends alone in the lab. One sleepy Saturday, I approached a mouse in preparation for a blood draw. Mice can be slippery creatures. The technique most favored was to grab them by the scruff of the neck with the thumb and forefinger, and hold the back tightly with the base of the hand. So I thrust forward like I had done dozens of times. I got a good hold, and flipped the mouse around to face me. But something went terribly wrong. I must have grabbed too high, or maybe too roughly. The mouse’s body quivered and then shuttered in such and odd and frightening manner. I reflexively released as the mouse fell to the table. Dead. With horror, I realized that I accidentally snapped it’s neck. I will never forget the feeling of life passing so quickly and unexpectedly in my hands.
I occasionally think about this as I watch family members cradle their loved ones in those passing moments before death. Do they feel the shutter? Do they experience revulsion or relief?
And I sometimes have fevered dreams about that mouse. When I toss and turn, unable to sleep because of the crushing pressure of some clinical decision or another. That poor creature.
That poor creature who succumbed under the weight of my thick, clumsy hands.
Jordan Grumet is an internal medicine physician who blogs at In My Humble Opinion.