Medical students are an odd bunch. At least in my day. Warning: The following may seem a little distasteful, violating the doctrine of proper decorum expected of medical professionals. I feel your anguish for those bent to the more sensitive side, but to sugar-coat a narrative only robs it of its essence.
I attended the Medical College of Wisconsin in the late 1980s, so what follows may not represent medical training. Med school starts right off with a bang — a whopping load of basic sciences. Prime amongst these is gross anatomy — dissecting and studying every inch of the human body from head to toe.
On the first day, they immediately threw us into the fire. We were led into an expansive cadaver lab, where rows of large bags stood atop long metal tables before us, formaldehyde permeating the air. They grouped us four to five per table. After a few words from one of the faculty, we pulled back the plastic “black bag.”
That was my first exposure to a dead person.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I knew this day would come but had no idea how I’d react. I didn’t sleep well that previous night, worried I’d do something stupid such as faint, fall, and faceplant right onto the cadaver.
Fortunately, I kept my composure. The initial shock eventually gave way to detachment, a coping mechanism necessary for the study of the human body in its raw form.
This happens surprisingly fast.
You come to appreciate the gift that someone left to educate future doctors. One tends to forget this with so much work crammed into a short timeframe. Instead, the attendant stress and weariness only build, requiring additional coping measures. The most common was humor.
And as young adults still reaching for respectful maturity, many of us held onto a rather adolescent mindset, where sophomoric humor reigned supreme.
We wore lab coats during the dissections — long, white cotton coats with large pockets, pockets excellent for small books, notepads, a snack, and sometimes pieces of cadaver snuck in by a sneaky classmate. I was a victim of this myself. One day I felt something in my pocket. I reached in, pulled it out, and gleefully found one of my favorite vending-machine snacks. Being hungry at the moment, I salivated with ecstasy until I saw pieces of tendon sticking out from each side of the foil package. Shortly after, an eyeball rolled out.
Other than the brief shock-and-awe, I was disappointed not to have a snack. I looked around for the culprit, only to find a bunch of classmates laughing hysterically, one of whom had an amputated middle finger projecting from her front pocket.
Since lectures, labs and study occupied most of our waking hours, what little remaining free time was spent most efficiently, typically in merriment. For instance, over half of our class of 200 students gathered at a local nightclub to decompress after our monthly Monday exams. Being a Monday, the place was occupied with little else than first-year med students, and beer was cheap, making our merrymaking all the more merrier.
Living in the “beer capital” of Milwaukee, it should come as no surprise that much of our extracurricular activities involved generous servings of beer. We were encouraged by the administration and faculty to “stop and smell the roses” along our long journey to doctorhood. The reverie (with the help of beer) was justified, rendering the long journey more bearable. I assumed this was how life operates in general.
To us, the Medical College of Wisconsin was “MCOW” (pronounced “Em-Cow”) being in the “Dairy State,” though it is officially “MCW” (pronounced “Em-See-Dubayoo”). Those in administration cringed at the MCOW misnomer, reminding us repeatedly to abstain from its use.
In defiance, a group of us created a lovely Christmas card, picturing us around a live cow draped with a large “M.” (M-COW, get it?) To the right was my drawing of a cow and a smiling worm wrapped around a staff, single antler atop its head.
You’re probably familiar with this symbol for medicine (sans antler), called the Staff of Asclepius. There’s debate about whether it’s a snake or a Guinea worm, a human parasite that’s removed by winding it around a stick, rotated a little each day until it’s out, a process that takes days to weeks. The result: a worm around a stick.
Anyway, my worm is smiling from ear to ear (no, real worms do not have ears) after biting into a cheese ball atop the staff. Above the worm is “MCOW” in big obnoxious letters, and below, “Udderly Wisconsin.” We sent that card to faculty, even the dean of MCOW, and several others in admin. The reaction was mixed, most folks laughed, but heck, we all eventually graduated.
At the behest of fellow classmates, I designed a logo with the same smiling worm and staff, a cow wearing sunglasses with an “M” on its flank, two hands grasping sudsy beer mugs on each side, and MCOW below. We planned to mass produce this on T-shirts. But alas, someone in admin caught wind, and word got out, “Do this and die,” or something to that effect.
Sadly, the MCOW shirt never came to light. Not until years later did that drawing resurface as a title slide for my last grand rounds lecture — a roast of my attendings — at the end of my ear, nose, and throat residency. I guess I never grew up.
Getting back to the cadavers: In December of that first year, the “Black Bag Ball” was held, an annual tradition commemorating our completion of gross anatomy and all our other first-semester courses.
We were only human, and as full-grown doctors would still be. Yet despite our immature ways, our proclivity towards beer, and our crude coping measures, we had enormous respect for the dead; their priceless gift enabled us to become the doctors who someday would have a profound effect on the living.
We held a candlelight vigil honoring our cadavers, bodies that temporarily housed beautiful and everlasting souls. Afterward, we went out for a beer.
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