Since returning back to school from a nice 4-day break over Thanksgiving, things have sure taken off. I know I know, I start a post off talking about Thanksgiving and Christmas is barely over a week away. What can I say, some things just find themselves being placed on the back burner (and to be honest, I should probably be studying instead of writing — oh well, I’ll get back to the books at some point tonight). But anyway, back to the “things have taken off” comment…
Med school is always “busy.” There’s a lot to learn (cue the “med school is like trying to drink from a fire hose” analogy), lots of activities/clinics to potentially get involved in, and of course you still have to attempt to be an adult and go grocery shopping, wash your underwear, and (kind of) clean your apartment. But I don’t know, things feel like they’ve picked up since Thanksgiving and I have a hypothesis as to why.
We started organ systems.
What does that mean? Well, it means I’m learning things that have extremely obvious clinical implications. It means I’m hearing lectures where the vast majority of the information being presented would never have been covered in an undergraduate course. It means my weekly schedule is filled with more in-person and online lectures (all covering different and extremely important material) than it has been in the 4 months of med school prior. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s such an honor and privilege to have this opportunity to learn these things and be here — it just seems like organ system modules progress at a different pace that is going to take a bit of time to adjust to.
Our first organ system — cardiovascular.
It’s a bit comical, every doctor seems to make sure to point out how their field is the most important and the organ you’re going to learn about is the end all be all to well, life. The pulmonologist points out you need lungs to breathe. The neurologist says you need innervation of the lungs by nerves for them to even work. Then of course, the cardiologist takes no time to remark that without the heart, you wouldn’t have a reason to worry about any of the other organs. Of course the reality is that the body is a system of organs, but human pride seems to like rankings.
It’s been an exciting (if not overwhelming) two weeks, although I’ll be the first to admit I doubt you’re currently reading the words of a budding cardiologist. At the same time, you wouldn’t believe how remarkable the heart is. The insanely artistic way it’s formed, starting as a long tube in a 24 day old embryo and becoming this complex, beating, 4-chambered power house of circulation and muscle 8 short weeks later.
Pretty early on in the module we had an anatomy lab in which we were able to have a very intimate interaction with so many of those tiny complexities that allow the heart to perform its functions. Before that lab, we actually had a lecture given by a pathologist in order to better guide the experience with our cadavers. That lecture was a demonstration of a heart dissection — a heart dissection that was somewhat different from the one I would be participating in an hour or so later.
What was the difference? It was a fresh heart.
A fresh heart means it hasn’t undergone the embalming process resulting in a hardening of the tissue and blood. A fresh heart implies it was very recently beating — recently beating in a a man or in a woman with hopes, dreams, a family, maybe even a career. But now, now it’s being projected on a large screen in front of me, glistening with serous fluid and the reminder of a life now ended.
There’s something about looking at another person’s heart. Maybe it’s because our English language seats so many intense and personal emotions as residing in our hearts. Love, passion, the things you hold close and the people you care about. To see that physical entity before your eyes (even knowing it doesn’t contain those things), never knowing the individual, the vessel that once relied on that powerful muscle to allow them to interact with the world — its both beautiful and tragic.
It was an honor to sit in that lecture hall and watch as the pathologist so meticulously showed us the intricacies of an organ whose role in the human body is impossible to overlook. The following hour in the anatomy lab, when I sat literally holding a woman’s heart in the palm of my hand — the weight and the meaning of that moment was not lost on me.
Medical school is hard. It’s exhausting and it can be overwhelming.
It’s having to do 8 hours of work in a 2 hour time slot — five times a day.
But it’s a profound experience.
An experience that makes you realize just how lucky you are to be alive and be a participant in these moments, this adventure, and this life.