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The First Thing I Noticed Was the Smell
The first thing I noticed was the smell. The scent of seemingly toxic chemicals mixed with decaying flesh was strong enough to knock you back if it hit you unexpectedly. I had already put on the slightly dirty scrubs one of the first year medical students kindly offered me, and so walking into the smelly Gross Anatomy Lab I looked as if I belonged, despite the quickened pace of my heart and the moisture that was forming on my palms. The sight, the second thing I noticed, was of seventy-five long metal tables arranged in neat rows, and bulky shapes covered by thick plastic resting on top of fifty of them. Here was a place that most people would find appalling, but in the light of opportunity and interest, I found appealing.
The mushy pink stuff looked like something you would find after smashing a rotten pumpkin. However, this was no vegetable – it was actual human fat, which I was removing with a scalpel from an obese cadaver that was laid out on the table in front of me. The look of the partially cut-up deceased woman, with her head split open from a previous day’s work, was enough to make most people clutch their stomachs and dash to the bathroom, but I proudly kept my lunch down while I worked away.
Cracking jokes as well as several ribs, I noticed that the fluttering of my heart had given way to its normal, steady beat, and my hands, inside white latex gloves, were dry. I moved quickly around the table, handing off scalpels and saws, and reached into the chest cavity to pull out large pink lungs that felt squishy from the presence of air still inside them.
As everyone concentrated on his or her specific task, the chatter died down and my mind began to wander. Suddenly, twenty years had passed and I was standing in an operating room, a bright light above me focused on an open chest below.
“Scalpel, please,” I asked of the nurse beside me. She handed it over, and I bent over the man laid out on the table. Within a few minutes, the operation was done and I quickly stitched up the long cut I had made in the chest. As I walked out the door and entered the hallway, a young intern ran after me.
“Dr. Malik, I have a question for you.”
I glanced at him. “Go ahead.”
“When’d you decide to go into cardiology?”
I cracked a small, reminiscent smile. “Honestly, I never thought this is where I’d end up. But ever since high school, I’ve been interested in the heart.”
“Yeah, why’s that?”
“I shadowed a first year medical student on a lab day, and helped cut open the chest and uncover the heart.”
“I loved that part of the dissection,” he said, smiling eagerly.
I laughed. “Well, then, who knows? Maybe one day you’ll become a cardiologist, too. Keep your options open though – you might discover that podiatry is your true passion.”
He grinned, turning to go, and I chuckled as I disappeared into the lounge.
A low hum brought me back. We had finally uncovered the heart and rid it of the patches of fat that clung to it, and along with everyone else in the room, I was amazed at the gigantic size of it. The group of students I was working with peered at it through squinted eyes, angling their heads to get a better view. The girl I was standing next to turned towards me, asking, “Know what she died of?”
I didn’t pause. “Cardiomegaly?”
She smiled, and I grinned back.