An anatomy lab partner lost: What would Chris have thought about COVID-19?

Chris was my anatomy partner during medical school. We had the right side of the cadaver across from Felipe and Andrew. Felipe was the son of a famous chemist and would disappear after class. He is now an internist. Andrew was handsome and dated a beautiful classmate. He stayed at one of the teaching hospitals.

Anatomy was hard. It was our introduction to medicine. When I first saw our cadaver when they pulled back the sheet, I burst into tears and ran into the hallway. I crouched into a tight ball sobbing. An old retired surgeon, our volunteer anatomy instructor, hugged me. After the initial shock, I barely made it back into the lab that day.

But after that, we got used to the morbid scene. Chris and I worked on our side carefully. We got used to the formaldehyde, which strangely made us hungry. I remembered once looking up and realized we were all sawing the scalp. For that part, both sides – Chris and I on the right, and Felipe and Andrew on the left – had to work together. I volunteered to prop up the head. There were over 20 cadavers propped up by students, as if the cadavers were finally at attention. Diligent medical students sawed off scalp bones to reveal the brain.

Many deaths are coming due to COVID-19.  The medical profession is under enormous stress. My thoughts turn to my old anatomy partner.  Chris had completed a PhD prior to medical school. He had fine blond hair, glasses and was kind. Everyone loved Chris. He was squeamish though during microbiology. When we were studying gram stains, I shared with him my stool sample, as he did not bring in his own.

Chris would read short quotes to our tablemates from Chicken Soup for the Soul. When everyone was stressed about Step 1, we would remind each other we needed to “just pass.” I already knew I was going into pediatrics, which didn’t require astronomical scores. Chris tried not to stress.  He did well.

After the first two years, our class moved into clinical rotations. Chris and I didn’t have of the same rotations, but we waved to each other across the atrium. We shared quotes about keeping life happy. Chris matched in radiation oncology, which I thought was an odd choice for my anatomy partner.  We graduated. I found out a few years later that Chris had committed suicide.

Over the years, I think of Chris now and again. I think of the loss of life and potential. I hear from classmates now during this pandemic. We are scattered across the country yet together again as a profession undergoing this common experience. But we lost Chris early to suicide. He is not here with us to share in the COVID-19 Facebook groups.

Memories of Chris remind me that we are strong and fragile. I am in this crisis with everyone else.  I have volunteered to rejoin the hospitalist service. But a job I have now is to listen. I am on call this weekend as assistant chief. This weekend I checked in with folks. I asked a nursing supervisor, “How are you coping?” I asked a friend, “How are you doing with all those meetings?” I asked a pediatrician in urgent care, “How did you feel when that kid came in?” And I tried to shut my usual over-opinionated mouth.  I tried to listen.

I wonder if anyone asked Chris? I wish I had asked him more. I remember him vividly the first half of medical school but the last two years – nothing. I remember a blur of blond hair during graduation as we all hugged, each embarking to different residency paths.

This pandemic has made me think of Chris. I wonder why he chose death over a life in medicine? He must have been going through a great hurt. It is unfair that the most beautiful souls often have their lights extinguished by suicide. I sometimes get angry. Who was looking out for Chris? What happened during his residency? Why did he choose radiation oncology? I think he would have been happy in Pediatrics with me.

There is now recognition that doctors are worth saving. We are family members, mentors, and community leaders. At a wellness meeting, a presenter reminded us to care for ourselves with S-E-L-F (sleep, love, exercise, and food). During this pandemic, when physicians are dying, there are physician voices reminding us to self-care. A chorus of voices reminding us to demand protective equipment.

I think my anatomy partner would have been right here with us. Chris would be using his PhD brain to think of innovative ways to solve this crisis. He would have reminded younger physicians that they can just make it through the day. You don’t have to give the ultimate sacrifice. I am ready to work on the inpatient service. I get to make that choice. Chris, I wish you were here to choose. It is unfair that we lost you early.

Chris, can you believe what is going on right now? It’s like the Spanish flu! I still say duo-DEE-num with an Italian accent. The sphincter of Oddi? I never needed that again. Remember we would talk about Garfield and Oddi?  Andrew and Felipe thought we were silly. The branching arteries of the heart? Nope, didn’t need that either. Andrew needed that because he ended up in radiology.  No wonder he was so insistent when we had to share the heart with their side. I kept our dissection tools. I tell my little patients about you when they drop off stool samples. How my anatomy partner didn’t want to examine his own stool. I miss you, my friend. But I got to write this post and remind the world that you existed. I’m sorry you have to sit this one out.

Vi Thuy Nguyen is a pediatrician who blogs at Dr. Plastic Picker.

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