I loved medical school so much that I was never even aware of the fact of “being a medical student.” I was too busy being it it, doing it, loving it, being in love with it.
Nevertheless, I had a sense of solidity that I had never experienced before. With my dual degree program came huge financial commitments, and great opportunities. I applied for and got many kinds of grants and fellowships, some as large as $10,000 and some as small as $300. They all added up, and each one was a feather in my cap.
There were jobs, too. The first years were a patchwork of lab jobs, hospital grunt work, general go-fer gigs for the administration. Then I settled into my niche of tutoring and educational program development. I helped design and implement a model of teaching medical communication skills to new doctors, and a testing tool to evaluate its effectiveness. Faced with an embarrassingly inadequate human sexuality module in our med school, I complained, and was given the green light to develop the ideal one. Med school was “heaven on a stick,” to borrow a phrase.
My marriage surpassed any expectations I could have had, if I was the type to have expectations, and I’m not. I could never have imagined the satisfaction that bloomed from the cultivation of cooperation and intimacy between two people in love with each other and with their respective and mutual work, for we shared certain teaching and administrative duties in the school. We were a team. We were even asked to write an article for the medical school journal on the art of cooperation and compromise.
I got pregnant during the fourth year of my six year program. It was not overtly planned. But since we were using the Cooperative Method of Fertility Awareness Family Planning (another of my hats, since I was a certified teacher and taught in the Student Gynecology Clinic) which required both partners to be clearly aware of where the woman is in her fertility cycle, we KNEW I was fertile and the predictable outcome did in fact result. It took us both a few minutes to get used to the idea, and then we were elated.
I was in the midst of a long subinternship in surgery at that time. A subinternship is just like an internship, except you don’t get paid. You work the same long hours, take the same night call, have the same responsibilities as an intern. Our med school supplied students to a chronically understaffed VA hospital, and there were many excellent subinternship opportunities there. It really was a great thing to do as a student in surgery. At the private hospitals, the best a medical student could hope to do in surgery was stand on a stool at the back of a crowd hoping to get a look at the surgeon working. If you were really lucky, you might get a turn holding retractors, which meant you could actually see the operation in progress.
As a subintern at the VA, I worked one on one with each of two foreign doctors. Dr. Duy was a marvelously skilled Vietnamese surgeon, French trained, with nimble fingers and a gift for teaching. The first day, he taught me how to tie surgical knots one-handed with both my right and my left hand. I still use some of the skills he gave me, even though I haven’t done surgery in more than ten years.
The other surgeon was a North Korean. He was a coarse brute who caused unutterable pain and suffering. I don’t remember his name, thank G@d
My jobs included assisting the surgeon in the evaluation of the patient, preparing the operative site, and if it was an abdominal surgery, opening the abdomen and preparing the operative field. After the surgeon had finished in the abdomen, my job was to close the layers of the abdominal cavity and finally the skin. We had a grumpy old anesthetist: if he thought I was taking too long sewing the patient up, he would “lighten up” the anesthesia so that the patient would start to cough. The old bastard.
One morning I went into the operating room and found the doors propped open. “What’s this?” I asked the nurse. “Why are the doors propped open?”
“We’ve got a leak in the anesthesia machine,” she told me. “Until they get it fixed we’re gonna have to operate with the doors open.” Oh, I though, this way we’ll only be half as anesthetized as the patients.
I inhaled Halothane along with everyone else for the next four weeks. And then, one week after I finished that rotation and went on to the next one, I miscarried. I was ten weeks along.
I had no idea how attached I had grown to that little nubbin of life that was growing inside me. I absolutely fell apart. I couldn’t function. The clinical rotation I had just started was, of all things, Obstetrics and Gynecology. I couldn’t set foot on the ward for a week after the miscarriage. I just lay in the bed and cried.
The dean ran interference for me and spoke to the OB/GYN director, who was a woman. She was the daughter of the senior OB/GYN in that town, and had joined her father’s practice. She had a strong academic background, loved power, and used it freely.
When I finally got my feet back under me I made an appointment to speak with her, for I had already missed the whole first week of my eight week rotation. I knocked on her door.
“Come in,” she called. I entered the sleek wood office. She sat writing at an expansive desk. “I heard what happened,” she said, not bothering to raise her head and look at me. “It won’t affect your grade.”
I waited for whatever came next, but it never came, so I waited some more, not knowing what she expected of me.
“You can go now,” she said to her desk, still scribbling, “The nurse will give you your assignment.”
I wandered back out into the hall, feeling very unsure of myself, and was greeted by a large and cheerful nurse who ushered me down a hall and into a clean green room whose only features were a GYN exam table, an exam light, a wheeled stool, a kick bucket (the kind on wheels that you position with your feet, that’s why it’s called a “kick bucket”), and a room divider screen, with whatever was behind it.
Not too long afterwards, the door opened again and the same nurse brought in a gowned woman, and asked her to make herself comfortable on the table. The nurse positioned the woman and left her alone with me. There was an awkward silence, since we had not been introduced.
Five minutes later the door opened again, and this time it was Dr. S. and an entourage: an intern, a resident, and another medical student. Dr. S. began to talk to the woman on the table, and intermittently explaining a thing or two to the entourage. I felt like a ghost, since no one had acknowledged my existence since the nurse had put me in there to begin with.
Next thing I knew, objects were being retrieved from behind the room divider. A tray with sterilized instruments on it. And a machine that looked like….a vacuum. It was a vacuum. For performing abortions. My stomach contorted. I begged pardon, and stumbled from the room, under the searing glare of Dr. S……