Labels and Identity: Part Two

Medical school was a blast.  I kid you not, I have never had such fun since I was seven years old.

That was the time that my pet baby turtle died.  I have never once heard of a pet baby turtle that did not die young, but instead grew up to be an adult turtle giving rides to children in the zoo.  But I digress.

My baby turtle died, the kind that children are not allowed to have anymore because of Salmonella.  And I buried it in my mom’s flower bed behind the L-shaped brick house we rented, way far away from the road, down a dirt driveway half a mile long.

It wasn’t two or three days until I realized what a blunder I had made.  I had passed up a stellar opportunity to further my scientific education.  So I dug up Mr. Turtle and laid him out upon my little bed, took up my X-Act-O knife and began the postmortem by separating the plastron from the carapace.

Just as soon as I lifted the lid of the turtle’s front shell, some horrible stinking greenish black slime poured out directly on my bedspread.  I jumped back, gagging, fighting off waves of panic.  That has always been my motto, “Do Not Panic.”  It has served me well in many situations.

The hideous stench of the decomposed turtle innards drove me to quick action.  I snatched up the bedspread, turtle swathed within, and ran out the back door.  My chief concern of course was what my mother was going to do when she noticed that my bedspread was gone and that the house smelled like rotten turtle guts.

I dumped the turtle remains back in the flower bed and dragged the bedspread into the garage where the old wringer washing machine stood.  There was a handy half gallon of chlorine bleach within reach, so I spread out the bedspread and emptied the contents of the bleach bottle onto the black slime place in the middle.  Then I wadded the whole thing up and stuffed it into the washing machine and went away from there.

From this it should be clear to anyone that I was destined to be a surgeon.

Anyway.  I loved medical school.  I did not encounter one single dead turtle there, but that was because I went to human medical school instead of veterinary medical school.  I often wonder why I didn’t think of that when filling out my application forms.  But that is water over the dam.

I was far, far too busy being a medical student to think about identity issues.  At first, there was a lot of course work, and a whole new system to learn.  The school I chose turned out to be what I later came to think of as “The Hippy Medical School,” because it was a center for innovation in medical education.  The Dean at that time was a Social Scientist and not even a physician.  The faculty were all top level experts in their fields, but they were also critical thinkers and often quite eccentric.  The most common word I heard during my six years there was:  Inquiry.

The immediate impact as far as I was concerned was that they honed in on my past as a traditional healer (no, I have not written anything about that yet, aside from the turtle), and proposed that I join the new phalanx of the Medical Scholars Program in Social Sciences.  The Medical Scholars Program means you do your four years of medical school, and then somehow or other you manage to do a full graduate program in some other discipline, with the aim of coming out of it with the letters MD, Ph.D after your name.  The accepted second discipline had traditionally been in “hard science,” like microbiology or biophysics, but since our Dean was a Social Scientist she was stumping to get the Social Sciences represented in there too, and I came along at just the right time.  So I became the first MSP student in Anthropology.

Somehow I convinced them to let me “just” go for a Master’s Degree in Anthropology instead of a Ph.D., for the same reason I didn’t become a surgeon:  I wanted to have a family.  Anthro Ph.D’s are known to drag on for seven, eight years on the average, and always involve one full year of fieldwork in some primitive place where one is quite likely to contract some dramatic tropical disease, excellent for bragging about at annual meetings but not so great if you have plans to reproduce someday, and I did.

One of the things that one does as a first year medical student is to dissect a human cadaver.  That is taken for granted;  it is a rite of passage.  Every medical school does it a little differently, but we all need to know what goes on underneath the outer carapace and plastron of the human body.

In our school, one cadaver was assigned to a pair of students, who then alternated dissecting and observing.  Through a series of happenstances, there ended up being an odd number of students and an extra cadaver, and she was assigned to me alone.  Yup, just she and I.  We were the outliers.

My poor cadaver!  I will never forget her.  She was an old, old lady.  She was curled up in the fetal position, and from the condition of her muscles and tendons, it looked like she had been that way for years.  I couldn’t help thinking of an old lady just like her that I had met years before, when I worked as an itinerant phlebotomist and was sent to a “convalescent hospital” to draw all of the patients’ blood there.  The poor little old lady looked up at me in terror from within her blue, blue eyes, her silky white hair combed neatly in a French twist on the back of her head.  She made little whimpering noises as I tried to straighten her arm out to draw her blood the normal way….but she had been curled up like a snail for so long, her muscles were all contracted and it could not be done.  So I drew the blood from her hand.

And there she was, or someone very like her, lying on my dissecting table, all crumpled up.  And I was supposed to be dissecting her armpit.  The armpit is a fascinating place.  It contains an electrical switchbox that operates the whole arm, including the hand.  So it’s essential to open it up and examine its contents.

But my lady was not able to cooperate in even the clumsy way the other cadavers did, and I was wondering how I would ever get the job done.  It didn’t help that I had come into the anatomy lab alone, late on a Saturday night, having no date.  Needing inspiration, I headed over to the lab’s radio to try to find a classical music station.  I have always found that classical music helps, as long as it is not Benjamin Britton.

Just as I arrived at the radio, I nearly collided with another ghoul in a white coat and plastic gloves.  “Oh, excuse me!  I was just looking for a classical station!”  we said, in unison.  And grinned sheepishly, realizing we were without question the two geekiest geeks on the planet, spending their solitary Saturday nights in the cadaver lab, looking for a classical music station.  Neither of us had noticed the other was there, even though we were just a few cadavers down from each other.  We found a good classical station.

“Oh, uh, well, since you’re here, could you help me with Madame Pretzel (I had named her) over here?  I can’t seem to access her axilla.”

“Mmmmm, why, I’d be delighted to!”  hummed the geek-boy, and he came over and helped me.

I though he must certainly be gay, because he was adorable, had good manners, and liked classical music.  But I took a risk and asked him out for coffee, and he eagerly accepted.  I found out he wasn’t the least bit gay, just highly cultured.  We got married.

By then I had accumulated so many Labels and Identities that I actually hyperventilated if I thought about them.  So I avoided thinking about them, and instead continued running three miles a day as I always had, and added two dance aerobics classes a day plus a weight training session three times a week, just to keep all the identities from running into each other and getting knocked down.

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  1. D'Alta

     /  October 30, 2011

    My first encounter with dissection happened when I was about 10 or eleven, although I’m sure I must have taken something apart prior to then… A friend’s cat had kittens; born too early, none survived. A group of geeky girls had been taken under the wing of the elderly high school science teacher. And as unbelievable as it would be in today’s schools, we geeks got a chance to dissect these too soon born, to find foam filling the lungs. Pneumonia? They had survived briefly after birth, so the lungs must have functioned just the teensiest bit of time. Thought about the medical field, but this geek got drawn into music where she could sing through all her discomfort…

    And yes, he is adorable, mannered, cultured, a geek who forgot his wallet when I invited him out for a cup of tea…

    • Well, didn’t you say it was YOU who invited HIM to tea? Not to get technical or anything…..LOL….

      • D'Alta

         /  October 31, 2011

        That’s what I told him, but he was so embarrassed and well-mannered back then that he still thought that he should pay! :>)

  2. Peter Baum

     /  October 30, 2011

    OK, this is beginning to get a bit spooky. You sure we are not related? I too was a midnight visitor to dissection lab, hangin out with the dead folks. My dissection partners were so obnoxious, that I would skip class, and go in at night to study.

    As for meeting my future spouse, that was in college, in the room where hundreds of cute white lab rats destined for dissection and analysis in the physiology course were housed, and either well fed, or starved. I walk in to feed my rats, and notice a young woman on the floor , in a corner, contorted in fear. I thought she had had a seizure. “You OK?” “The, the rat got out of its’ cage!! As someone who worked in a New York Lower East Side sweatshop over run by sewer rats, white lab rats were by comparison, cute. So, I walked over, retrieved her rat, let it crawl all over me to demonstrate how tame it was, and returned it to its’ cage.

    But it was not love at first rat. We had to bump into each other on Jaffa Road, five months later, just before it turns into Rechov Melech George. Having been nearly run over by an Egged bus to draw her attention, she remarked to her friend, “look at the bum who nearly got run over by the bus”. I was 50 pounds lighter, bearded, and dressed in jeans, some Arab style shirt, and a leather outback hat, and a ruck sack as I back packed through the country. The bum recognized her, and called out her name. We still laugh about it. So, I ditched my old gold digger girl friend, and we have been together since January 1977.

    • Now THOSE are some good stories. I propose we write an Indiana Jones style swashbuckling medical thriller series. Then we can pay all our debts and maybe take a vacation before we are called to the Big Dissection in the Sky.


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