The Stink of Medicine

At age five, they pin me down, and pour diethyl ether on a gauze cone clamped over my nose and mouth. 98...97...96...94......They rip out my tonsils, and hand them to me as a souvenir a few days later in a Gerber baby food jar filled with formaldehyde. I am sure they are my balls. I check to make sure.

At age eight, they bring me to bid farewell to my dying grandmother. To me, she always looked like she was dying, always sitting, leaning on her cane, her taut yellow skin stretched over high Tatar cheekbones. As usual, she grabs me, pressing me into her shawls, mumbling blessings in languages I cannot understand. The smell of her decay is stronger than the ether, but I cannot push away. It might hurt her feelings, and she'll die right here and now.

At age nine, the orthopedist's cast saw terrifies me with its loud buzz, but it eats only plaster of Paris, not flesh of Michael. The thigh-to-toe cast on my left leg separates into two, and essence of me, concentrated and absorbed over months into swaddling layers of white muslin lining, wafts toward my face.

In high school, uncertain that I will be able to withstand the blood, piss, shit, and vomit of medicine, I take a summer job as an orderly in the Boston City Hospital's Accident Floor, as they call their emergency room at the time. Most of the accidents occur before the patients come in. My six comrades and I sit on a hard oak bench in the main corridor, awaiting the call of Miss Mary McMahon, the blue-haired charge nurse, to transport a patient to his room, to X-ray, to the O.R., or to the morgue. You know a patient is a goner, not by the numbers of tubes entering or leaving his orifices, not by the volume of blood on the floor and ceiling of the treatment room, but by the shrill cry of Mary McMahon, in full Boston Irish brogue: "Call the priest!" Hearing this, Charon picks up his oar, Cerberus wags his tail. Miss McMahon sees to it that all who are about to leave us, regardless of race, religion, color or creed, receive the last rites.

There is no escaping the hospital smell. It is everywhere, especially in the underground tunnels that link the buildings one to another. The tunnels are alive with activity; sleepless interns dash among orderlies pushing litters and wheelchairs. It is a sweet smell, a mixture of decay and blood-soaked bandages and ether. Once again, I check my balls.

The smell is strongest in the tunnel leading to the hospital kitchen. Once, I see a cook mixing a stew with a canoe paddle. As an employee, you can eat in the hospital dining room for thirty-five cents. I never eat there.

Miss McMahon gives me two weeks before she sends me on a trip to the morgue. When she calls two names, it means a morgue delivery. To break me in, she chooses Eddie, the senior orderly. He is experienced, strong, and he can read. He is also an exhibitionist. The orderlies are issued cotton pants, white with black stripes, resembling mattress covers. The fly has buttons. Eddie stands in the doorway of the toilet across from the orderlies' bench, flashing his member at passersby, male or female, with a soft, high-pitched "Whoo-hoo!" I have no idea what he is doing, or why.

I am shaking as we approach the bed. The body is like a mummy, wrapped in white linen, a name tag attached to the big toe. It is indeed as cold as the clay. It is stiff, too. All the clichés are true. A small patch of reddish-yellow exudate seeps through the side of the chest.

"You take the feet, Mickey," Eddie says kindly. He is the only person ever to call me Mickey.

We roll through the tunnels toward the morgue. (Eddie was later to lose his job for taking a shortcut across Albany Street, propelling his stiff through traffic halted by his associate.) We encounter my cousin David, ten years my senior, a resident in pediatrics. "Ah, Dr. Ingall," he guffaws, "Haven't done too well with your first patient, I see!"

The morgue is deathly quiet. As we enter, the hospital smell disappears. In its place is a clean cold odor that is all too familiar. It smells like a butcher shop. Both side walls are lined from floor to ceiling with rows of small square refrigerator doors, like the doors of an ice cream truck. It smells like that, too --- like the dark never-cleaned insides of an ice cream truck.

"You find a door without a label, kid. That means the tray is empty."

We roll out a tray, just like a file drawer, and slide our charge onto it, causing his head to bounce loudly. Eddie takes the tag from the toe and slides it into the slot in the door.

"Now we have a Coke, Mickey." A coke machine stands the wall.

"Look at this, Mickey." He opens an ice cream door at calf level and rolls out the tray to reveal two blond angels, a boy and a girl of the same age, with the same neatly combed blond hair, the same perfect peaceful face, both dressed for the Easter Parade.

"Let's go," I say.

"No, Mickey, now we have a cigarette." We smoke a cigarette.

"We have to get back," I say.

"No, Mickey, now we have another Coke."

"I don't want one."

"Well, have another cigarette while I have one."

"We have to get back," I plead.

"Look, kid," Eddie's voice becomes lower and nasty, "You're here for the summer. I'm here for life, That nurse thinks it takes an hour and a half to take a stiff to the morgue, and you are not going to tell her any different."

In medical school, the formaldehyde returns, the life blood of my cadaver. I know who my cadaver will be. She has just died, and a great humanitarian like her will almost certainly donate her body to medical science, as they say.

"Thank you Mrs. Roosevelt!" I will exclaim, as I open my box for the first time. "Thank you for affording me the opportunity to help others by tearing you to shreds."

It isn't her. It's a man. The formaldehyde in which he has been soaked has macerated his skin, giving him an ageless look. The cartilage of his nose has dissolved in the pickling juices, making him look as though he has gone one round too many with Archie Moore.

The smell of him will be forever, like the tonsils that have remained in the jar on my bookcase. At first, I wear rubber gloves to dissect, but the smell comes through, wrinkling my fingertips. At the end of the day, I scrub my hands with brushes and green soap, Lava soap, Ajax cleanser, dishwashing detergent, baking soda, lemons. But the smell remains, combing my nostrils as my hand brings the fork to my mouth at dinner. During lovemaking, the smell evokes strange intrusive fantasies.

After a while, it becomes a part of me. Only when I return after a weekend away do I notice it. I stop wearing gloves. I begin to eat lunch at the cadaver box, sometimes laying my sandwich down on his muscles, to get the use of two hands. One day, the project is the removal of the erector spinae muscle that runs along the length of the back, beside the vertebrae. In cattle, it's filet mignon, the instructor informs us. Sure enough, as I tear it from its attachments to the bone, the marinated muscle looks like chunks of rare steak. It is eleven-thirty, and, to my horror, my mouth is watering. I am becoming a doctor.

---Michael Ingall

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