An Anatomy Lab Partner Lost: What would Chris have thought about Physician Sacrifice and COVID-19?
April 5, 2020
Chris was my anatomy lab partner during our first year of medical school. We had the right side of the cadaver of a 90-something-year-old woman, and across from us was Felipe and Andrew. Felipe was the son of a Nobel Prize winning chemist. He was always a more morose soul, and would disappear after class. He made it through and I believe is an internist in New York. Andrew was very slim and handsome, and dated a fellow student who was beautiful and smart. They broke up before the Residency Match as they were applying in very competitive fields. I believe the beautiful girlfriend is an ophthalmologist now. Andrew stayed at one of the teaching hospitals as an academic specialist. It is ironic because he used to talk about the stock market and money a lot.
Even before medical school, Mr. Plastic Picker and I were already together and had been dating for 3 years in college. We were planning our lives together. I studied harder in the last few years of college so I could attend the same medical school as Mr. Plastic Picker. Life worked out. He was initially a year ahead of me at school, and when I was starting my first year of medical school – he purposefully took an extra year of research so that we could be in sync during our training. He was having a relatively relaxed time driving around putting on event monitors on volunteer study subjects with varying Bostonian accents. His lab was studying the effects of air pollution on cardiovascular events. He was there to support me, and talk me through the first year.
Anatomy was hard. It was our first introduction to medicine, and I had never seen a dead body. In fact, for someone who had been admitted to one of the top medical schools in the country – I knew very little about the actual practice of medicine. I didn’t learn CPR until right before our surgical rotations. When I first saw our cadaver when they pulled the sheet from her shiveled body, I burst into tears and ran into the hallway. I sat in the hallway crouched into a tiny ball sobbing. I had lead a very sheltered life. An old surgeon who was almost 80 and one of our volunteer anatomy instructors came out and hugged me. The initial shock was hard and I hardly made in back into the room that day.
But after that, I and my classmates got used to the morbid scene. Chris and I worked on our side of the cadaver carefully. The joke was our school had us dissect only the arm or the leg, and we did the leg. We quickly got used to the smell of formaldehyde which strangely made us hungry. I remember once looking up, and realized we were all sawing the scalp bones off with power tools. For that part, both sides – Chris and I on the right, and Felipe and Andrew on the left – had to work together. I wasn’t really into dissection, so I think I volunteered to prop up the head for my fellow students. I looked up and there were over 20 cadavers propped up by students, almost as if the cadavers were finally awake and at attention – as a dilligent medical student power sawed off their scalp to reveal the underlying brain paranchyma.
I don’t think about those scences often, but they are coming back to me because of Chris and the thoughts on the waves of death that are sure to come due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the enormous stress the medical profession is undergoing right now. Chris was an older student and had completed a PhD already. He had straight fine blond hair, glasses, and very quiet and kind. I remember our histology instructor really liked Chris. I think because Chris knew so much already from his PhD time. I had earned my Bachelors in History of Science, and Histology was hard. Everytime I would peer into the microscope, I would mostly see my own eyelashes. But everyone loved Chris. We were also Histology lab partners, and I do remember he was squeamish and didn’t want to bring his own stool sample in during that lesson. I had no issues, and happily shared with him some of my feces.
Chris would read little quotes to me and our tablemates from “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” When everyone was stressing about Step 1 scores, I remember he and I would remind each other “just pass.” I already knew I was likely going into pediatrics which didn’t require astronmical scores. Mr. Plastic Picker was planning on doing a specialty specialty, and we were going to couples match. So it made sense for one partner to be in a less competitive field anyway. At that point, we had planned on having at least four children and I was going to work part-time. Life didn’t work out that way and now I’m a middle manager and have a happy full-time career. I think Chris and I both did fairly well for Step 1. Mr. Plastic Picker did exceptionally well. But Chris and I tried not to stress too much.
After the first two years of medical school, your class goes into the clinical rotations and you don’t see each other that much. I didn’t have any of the same rotations with Chris but we always greeted each other with happy waves and sharing quotes about keeping life simple and happy. Chris was already married prior to medical school, and I only saw his wife once during a formal medical student gathering. They lived off campus. We graduated and Chris matched in Radiation Oncology in Texas, which I thought was an odd choice for my Anatomy partner. Perhaps it had something to do with his PhD research. I found out during residency a few years later, that Chris had committed suicide.
Over the years, I think of Chris now and again. I think of the loss of life and potential. I think about my Anatomy lab partner, and his quotes that he would share about joy and simple living. I hear from more classmates now during this COVID-19 pandemic even though Mr. Plastic Picker and I are in California, and they are mostly in Boston and New York. In a sense, we are all back together in the Anatomy lab undergoing this common experience. But we loss Chris early on to suicide. He is not here with us to share in the Facebook COVID-19 groups. He is not here with us, desperately trying to seek out N95 masks and protective gear.
Thoughts of Chris remind me that we are all strong but all fragile. I am in this with everyone else, and I have volunteered to rejoin the inpatient pediatric hospitalist service if called upon. Most night I have been reviewing slides on inpatient pediatrics in between binge watching Star Trek. But the most important job I have now is to listen to my department. I am on call this weekend as an administrator. And the most important thing I did this weekend was ask, how are you doing? I asked my friend RN Plastic Picker. “How are you coping? Can you turn off your phone this weekend? You seem stressed.” I asked the Chief of Pediatrics. “How are you doing with all those meetings? Can you turn off your email? I got it.” I asked the pediatrician working urgent care. “Were you okay for protective gear? Do you have enough masks?” I asked the associate in the office. “How are your kids doing? How is your mother?” I asked our GI specialist. “How is your husband? Isn’t he in anethesia? Is he okay?” I asked the clinic nurse who is on this weekend, “How is your husband? Isn’t he a fire fighter? Do they have enough masks?” I asked. And I even asked Mr. Plastic Picker. And I tired to shut my usually over opinionated mouth, and I tried to listen.
I wonder if anyone had asked Chris, how he was ever doing? I wish I had asked him more how he was doing more. I remember him so vividly during the first two years of medical school, and the last two years – no memories. I remember a blur of blond hair during graduation, as we were all hugging each other and about to embark on our different lives. Mr. Plastic Picker https://drplasticpicker.com/mr-plastic-pickers-environmental-journey/and I stayed in Boston, with what was familiar with lots of advisors and supports. Chris went off to Texas, with his wife none of us knew, as Radiation Oncology was a very sought after field and any Radiation Oncology position was gold.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has made me think about Chris and Anatomy lab. He would ask about others all the time. I wonder why he chose death over a life in medicine? I think he must have been going through a great hurt. It seems so unfair that it is the most beautiful souls that have their lights extinguished by suicide. I sometimes get angry. Should not someone have been looking out for Chris? What happenend in Texas? Why did he chose Radiation Oncology? I think he would have been happy in Pediatrics with me.
But the world is different now. There is a recognition that medical doctors are worth saving. At one of those wellness seminars, Mr. Plastic Picker and I attended, they talked about self-care and self-love. When I think back to Chris and myself, I realize that there is something to those seminars that he might have needed.
We in life have many roles, not just doctor. We are juggling family member, leader, mentor, doctor, community member and SELF. At one meeting, they showed a slide with pills that were labeled with “Self,” “Sleep,” “Love,” “Exercise,” and “Food.” And now, in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic when physicians are dying on the front lines, there is also a chorus of physician voices reminding us to self-care. This is a chorus of voices reminding us to demand protective equipment. Psychiatrist are volunteering to have chat sessions for fellow doctors so that we will make this through it together. This is all wonderful.
I think of my friend Chris, my Anatomy lab partner. I think he would be right there with us. I think he would be using his brilliant PhD brain to think of innovative ways to solve this crisis. I think he would have been sending little quotes on self-care to his department. And I think he would have said to younger physicians, with his hair now more grey than straight blond, that you can “just think about passing.” Just make it through the day. You don’t have to give the ultimate sacrifice, no one should have to do that. I am fine to work in inpatient and the ED. I have so many N95 equivalent masks and reusable respirators. I am ready. I get to make the choice. To Chris, I wish you were here to make that choice. It seems so unfair that we lost you early and you are not here for this.
Chris. Can you believe everything that is going on right now? We are going through what is equivalent to the Spanish Flu epidemic. I wish I had paid more attention to the leg dissection Chris, and the arm that we never did. Do you remember we had to go over and look at Felipe and Andrew’s dissection? I wish we had come in after class and did the right arm too. I actually needed to know that stuff because I am a Pediatrican and we see a lot of orthopedic sports medicine stuff. I still say duodenum the Italian way that we both liked. I agree it was pretentious. The Sphincter of Odi, never needed that again, but remember we would always think about Garfield the cartoon cat? Kids don’t even know about Garfield now, they have something called Minecraft and Fort Nite. Andrew and Felipe thought we were so silly. The branching arteries of the heart, nope – kids hardly have cardiac problems. But Andrew actually did need that stuff, because he’s in radiology. No wonder he was so dilligent when we had to share the heart with their side. I still kept our dissection tools. I tell my patients sometimes about you when I have them drop off stool samples, how I shared with you my sample. I miss you my friend. But I got to write this post and Mr. Plastic Picker remembers your kind face, and our daughter now knows your story. I’m sorry you had to sit this one out my friend.