An excerpt from Fifty Years a Doctor: The Journey of Sickness and Health, Four Plagues and the Pandemic.
President Kennedy’s assassination
One cold winter morning, all the medical students had to leave the warmth of the medical school to get to Kings County Hospital across the street for “rounding” with attendings.
We didn’t have our full winter clothing on since it was only across the street, but we moved quickly to get into the warm entrance of the hospital. As we got near the hospital, I noticed a large group of people, mostly colored, huddled near another hospital entrance that was not open. They appeared older, and most were bent over in their heavy winter clothing.
Later in the day, I asked a security guard about those people, and he said they were waiting for the clinics to open and usually arrived early to be seen first.
It seemed cruel to me that these shivering older people could not wait inside the warm hospital on this very cold winter morning.
People of my generation say that they have clear memories of where they were and what they were doing on the day President Kennedy was assassinated.
I was in the dissection room where our class was divided into groups of three or four students sharing a cadaver to learn anatomy, and that day, we had our cadavers propped up to learn about the perineum and the anus and its muscles when we heard some people in the hallway shouting that our young President Kennedy had been shot, and within a few minutes, we all knew this terrible thing, and we could no longer do the mundane dissection of the cadaver’s bottom. We covered up our cadavers and joined the crowds in the hallways to commiserate, get details, and find out if our president would live.
Football with a heart
Almost all the medical students in our class were in their early 20s, and sometimes the work we did and the hours we kept were too much, and we had to let off some steam, and this happened one evening following a particularly long and difficult day in dissection lab where the smell of formaldehyde never went away, a strong chemical smell that we now know is considered very unhealthy and probably carcinogenic.
We “lost it” as a group when one of the students tossed a cadaver heart to another student, and a “football” game started with cheering and running between the cadaver tables.
Our excitement was contagious and loud. After a few minutes, we got caught when a senior physician in our training program, hearing all the shouting, entered the lab and reprimanded us for being disrespectful to the cadaver and acting in a childish way.
We all regained our professional demeanor and apologized.
After that, we covered up the cadavers, left the lab, and went our separate ways.
Delivering babies at night
Part of our training in obstetrics and gynecology involved overnight work in labor and delivery. Our training program in this specialty was robust since OB/GYN was one of the major hallmarks of this medical school.
We were all seasoned in our obstetrical work after being attentive to our mentors, and now was the time when we became the “doctors” and were given patients in labor to take care of until delivery and the immediate postpartum period.
We were not alone in this department since experienced obstetrical nurses were available to help us, and senior OB/GYN residents were on call if we needed even more help.
Acting as the doctor in charge of this important service boosted our confidence as “almost doctors.”
We had already done a full day’s work in class by this late hour and were looking forward to our bedroom, which consisted of seven beds lined up in a small room facing the hospital laundry with the giant thundering steam chimney that never got quiet.
After finishing our last delivery, finding no immediate postpartum problems, and completing our written chart notes, we could go to bed to get some sleep before the obstetrical rounds with the professors in the early morning, just a few hours away.
As each doctor finished his work, he would go to the bedroom, pick a vacant bed and nod off. But there was a problem one night.
That night there were more students than beds. It was always assumed that there would probably be one or two med students still caring for women in labor and no need for an eighth bed in that crowded space, but after all seven beds were occupied, there was one last student finishing up after delivery, and when he got to the bedroom he couldn’t find a bed! No one could give up a narrow bed or share a bed, so this unfortunate student had to go back to labor and delivery and find a chair to sleep on, But not before loud cursing and kicking the bedroom wall.
Ronald Halweil is an otolaryngologist and author of Fifty Years a Doctor: The Journey of Sickness and Health, Four Plagues and the Pandemic.