I didn’t anticipate how much medical school would mirror my time in Thailand, however, after one month and two tests I have discovered that medical school, in many ways, is like living in a foreign country. There’s the most obvious connection of learning a new language. Yes, I consider medical terminology to be a whole new language. While it might be one of the easier languages I have learned, I find myself constantly mixing up superior and inferior, artery and nerve. At times I stutter, trying to find the right words to describe the structure I just found. “It’s the subcostal artery—vein—muscle–” I attempt to tell my group as I pick up a thin, shiny band of tissue jutting from our cadaver’s gut to his exterior.
“You mean the subcostal nerve,” a group member kindly corrects me.
“Yes, that,” I say. In my head I was saying subcostal nerve the whole time.
At least here when I mix up the words there’s no chance that I’ll accidentally call something a penis without knowing it. Shopping for bananas in Thailand there was always a high probability that I would say penis instead as the two words were the same except pronounced in different tones. “Just point, don’t ask,” a friend told me in the middle of a 7-Eleven after rehashing how embarrassed she felt in the public market when the vendor looked at her aghast and she later found out what she had said.
Like all good language immersion, speaking in medical terms all day means that I’ve forgotten at times how to speak naturally. When I moved home from Thailand I found myself inserting Thai into conversation without realizing it. When I returned from Chile where I spoke the native language more readily, I discovered that Spanish slipped into my vocabulary for the next six months.
Now I catch myself thinking of locations in terms of superior, inferior, medial and lateral.
“Can you grab my chapstick out of my bag?” I asked my roommate when we went on a hike together one weekend. “It’s just in the most superior pocket,” I said as I turned to face her.
She laughed but understood.
Here, like Thailand, I’ve found that bizarre things can occur without much explanation. One day my schedule instructed me to go to one of the research towers for a TB mask fitting. As I was leaving my study room to find the location of the fitting, I passed some classmates. “Did you all go to the fitting already?” I asked them as they passed. “Yes,” they both nodded.
“What is it?”
“It’s really weird,” one said. The other concurred. “You put these yellow things over your head and read. It was strange.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
Even with their warning nothing could have prepared me. I arrived to a small, narrow conference room—six seats, each with yellow fabric boxes folded flat in front of them, a green mask lying on top. Two young women at the front of the class asked us to place the yellow cubes over our heads. It had a clear plastic screen with which to see through. We all immediately laughed as we looked at one another with these large, clunky contraptions sitting on our shoulders.
“I feel like I’m in some weird sci-fi movie,” someone said.
Another person held their hands straight out in front of them as if escaping from the zombie apocalypse.
For the first time I wished I had Snapchat.
The women walked around the room, spraying a chemical into our yellow cubes, asking us to tell them when we tasted something bitter. The next step the instructors walked us through was to place a small, half circular green mask over our heads and do the whole procedure over again but while reading a paragraph about prisms and light refractions and how rainbows are made. They’re preparing us for the contagion, I thought, only my eyes visible between the green mask and yellow box.
“Alright, just sign the paper and throw away your mask,” they informed each of us as we finished.
We did as we were told and left.
“So why did we have to do that again?” I asked a classmate as we left the building.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I’ve done things that were more clear in a foreign language,” I noted. Particularly, I thought of when I was dressed up in Thai traditional wear for Sport’s Day during my first year in Nan. I was told to arrive at the beauty parlor across from school at 5 am. I did so and sat in a chair all morning with Thai women babbling around me, drawing thick lines in my eyebrows and applying layer after layer of mascara. At 7 am Thai teachers ran into the salon, frenzied, yet cooing at me. “How beautiful!” They took me to a back room and started dressing me without any pretense to see if I was comfortable dropping my pants and stripping my shirt in front of my foreign colleagues. My hair was furthered teased and curled and hairspray was applied at full blast. Later that evening when I pressed cotton ball after cotton ball to my eyes to remove the thick application of makeup I would find that half my left eyebrow had been tweezed off, only for them to fill it in again with a makeup marker.
Similar to Thailand where my senses felt heightened with the new smells and tastes and sounds, here too I find that my senses are on high alert. I take note of one my lab member’s quiet desire to disarticulate our cadaver’s leg, although she won’t say it out loud. I observe the way our bodies shift in the chairs, some slinking down, as we discuss how to best approach colleagues who have strong opinions that do not match our own. My senses are immediately piqued in lecture when I realize that I cannot study in public for the next week, not when images of genitalia are your main study tool. One morning, walking to class I notice the wing of a butterfly glued to the pavement. It is perfectly erect, the body smashed into the concrete is no longer recognizable. I sigh and without meaning to, say out loud – “What a shame.” My mind whirls with all the information I must shove into it each day, yet it sticks, just like the butterfly wing glued to the pavement, onto anything unusual.
“You’ll have the opportunity to check out a skull,” our professor informed us at the front of the room on the first day of lecture of our third and final unit of anatomy.
Later that afternoon it appeared as if our entire class had arrived in the upper hallway of the anatomy lab to receive their skulls. We all wanted the best ones. Somehow, I was the first to receive mine.
“Do you want real or plastic?” the woman asked me as she checked my name off a clipboard.
I hesitated. Did I really want a real skull to carry around? One in which a brain once lived. The thought of it made me want to shiver. “Which is better?” I asked.
I sighed, relieved. “Plastic it is.”
She handed me a square, black case, a number written in paint near the top. There were various patches of tape in disarray – previous attempts to claim the box or renumber it.
We all looked like middle school band kids as we walked from lab to the parking lot, each of us with our small black cases.
“We’re going home to practice our instruments,” I joked with a friend. “We’re going to practice playing our skulls.”
It was a bad joke but she laughed anyway.
This is a place and an experience, I’ve found, that’s difficult for others who haven’t experienced it previously to understand. I quickly discovered in my first week that telling others about the details of your cadaver lab is not socially acceptable. People generally don’t like to hear about the hardships of digging through a dead body.
“This is my sister,” my brother introduced me to one of our teammates at the indoor league. It was my first game playing with this team. “This is Patrick.”
We shook hands.
“She just started medical school,” Pierce said after Patrick told us that he was working on his masters in teaching.
“Oh, medical school,” Patrick said. “How’s that so far?”
I told him about cadaver lab, how scraping butt fat at 8 am in the morning was not my idea of a good time.
I could see him squirm a bit. My brother looked towards the ground.
“Yeah that doesn’t sound like fun,” Patrick said. He looked past me.
I hadn’t even thought to sensor the information. I hadn’t thought how most people haven’t cut into another human’s body and how most people never want to.
I find talking to other people not in medical school is necessary to keep me grounded and sane. Yet, when I am with these friends and family members I find stories of medical school bubbling to the surface. I must repress them. I must try and act like a normal person, like a person who belongs with the rest of society, not a person who cuts into bodies for 8 to 12 hours a week or who looks at pictures of genitalia that could easily be mistaken for porn.
Just as I anticipated medical school is hard, and time consuming. It forces you to reevaluate what is most important to you. For me it has pinpointed the activities that rejuvenate me, ground me, and allow me to come back to my studies a better me. Writing and nature – those are my activities. After an incredibly enduring week of studying for our second written test and practical a small group of friends decided to head up to the mountains to backpack. The weather wasn’t promising. In Vail, where we planned to go, it predicted thunderstorms through the afternoon and evening with possible snow the next day as we hiked out. But we persevered anyway.
“We’re medical students and just took a test,” my friend Ally said to the couple we asked to take our picture just before we started on the trail. “We know the weather is not going to be great but we had to get outside.”
They wished us luck, told us to be safe and stay warm. We waved goodbye and started on the short six mile hike to our camp for the night. Two miles in it started snowing. We put on our rainjackets and covered our bags with waterproof rain pouches. We smiled and continued on. That night all four of us piled into a two person tent to stay warm. It snowed almost three inches as we sat near the top of a mountain, nestled next to an alpine lake. We hadn’t intended to camp in the snow or to hike in it for the majority of our time. But it felt magical, majestic, exactly what each of us needed. We woke at around midnight. We felt crushed and warm beyond belief. We decided to split into our other tent, sleep two and two as the tents were intended. As Ally and Cory climbed out of the tent and into the other, I stuck my head out of the door flap. The stars splattered the night sky. The trees capped with snow, the world seemed alit. I was perfectly at peace. I would have been content to sit there the rest of the night, my head looking up, my body bundled in five layers and a sleeping bag.
The next morning we hiked through two seasons, watching the snow melt as the sun rose, the colors of fall peeking out. As we hiked lower the orange and yellow leaves of fall bloomed bright on the mountain sides. We stopped every ten to twelve minutes to admire the landscape. “Wow, look to your right,” Cory would say, or one of us would just gasp and the others would stop.
“This weekend has made my heart so full,” I said as we arrived at the car, sad to leave the little slice of paradise we had created.
“I don’t typically like that phrase,” Ally said, “but it seems so fitting right now.”
Similar to my time in Thailand, medical school is filled with highs and lows. There are days I doubt myself, doubt whether I have done enough to pass the test, doubt whether I am worthy to be here in such a privileged position. And yet there are other days where I feel I am exactly where I need to be. I feel at peace, a certain sort of calmness that only comes with deeply seeded happiness. There are the highs that come with escaping for a bit—the high of backpacking in the snow dusted mountains dotted with orange aspen trees. And of course there are the lows that come with returning to the grind. Going back to school after a pleasant weekend spent away from books and my computer, I can’t help but feel a little tug in my stomach. I wish I had one more day to rest, to drink tea on my couch while I write and read and watch Netflix. Yet, I also know that all it takes is to begin, to sit down and start studying again, and within minutes I feel at home, at peace. I feel that this is exactly where I need to be.