By Alison Stuebe
No one told me about the hallway.
Oh, I was ready for gross anatomy. The first day, we stood around a body while a cadaveric instructor described proper technique for teasing fat away from nerve fibers, and I was steady. I watched my classmates' faces intently, imagining away the formaldehyde and the uncut toenails on the table. I wasn't going to be the one to fall down, throw up, whatever. When we uncovered our body, I made the first cut.
So it's four months later, and I've been hardened to Gory Medical Things. I've hemisected a head, cleaned out a rectum, palpated a gall bladder. Nothing can touch me. And I'm standing in my short white coat, listening to a third year describe a newly admitted diabetic with an infected toe. At 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I'm feeling self-satisfied, able to follow at least the broad outlines of the conversation - neutrophil counts, glucose levels, dialysis. And then the hallway starts to narrow. My vision is getting blotchy, and it's way too hot on the 11-100 ward of Queeny Tower.
I try shifting my weight from one foot to the other, willing the pooled blood in my legs upward. The medical student continues to describe symptoms. The attending and the resident trade stories about prosthetic penises - apparently, the unfortunate man with the infected toe has one of these devices. I lean against the wall, thankful for the ergonomically correct handrails. At one point, I stumble forward - hard to explain away when you're standing still - and mutter something about tripping.
We walk into the room to see the patient - an amiable looking 53-year-old white male with a history of diabetes. His toe is feeling better; bandages are peeled back for a look. The room is smaller, and stuffier, than the hallway. I bend down, ostensibly inspecting the toe, hoping gravity will return some of the aforementioned pooled blood to my vena cava. I don't think I'm fooling anyone.
Back in the hallway, we're discussing the next patient. The details get fuzzy here - I'm too busy urging my reluctant veins to give up some of that pooled blood. Blotchy vision is giving way to gray. This time, I stumble and all but land on the attending. Dodging earnest offers of help, I excuse myself to a chair around the corner. Safe in a leatherette hospital armchair, I lower my head between my legs, enlisting gravity in earnest now.
Oxygen is returning to my brain before the attending, resident and medical student cluster around me, asking if I've had breakfast, if I'm feeling better, if I want something to drink. I'm told there's a conference at 8:30 a.m. - in a seminar room where I can remain seated - and I'm welcome to meet them then.
I flip over my ID badge, willing them to forget my name so I can vanish into the anonymous pool of short-white-coated medical students.
A month later, I venture back to the wards -- in the evening, on a full stomach -- in search of patients to interview. A merciless attending, not present for my little fainting episode, greets me: "You passed out on me!" he bellows. I wince. As consolation, he tells me that I can't become any more notorious than the medicine intern whose first patient, on her first day of work, died on the examining table.
It's warm and stuffy in the hallway. I think about formaldehyde and uncut toenails. How many years is the forensic pathology residency?