For months, I had been memorizing words which would someday, allegedly, hold some sort of applicable meaning to me. I was really starting to doubt it. The words floated through my head as I opened my eyes that morning, still in the haze of a summer sleep. Mitochondria. Loop of Henle. Progesterone. Even though I had taken the MCAT weeks ago, I was still studying. I knew my performance on the exam had been less than stellar, and despite not knowing my scores, I had succumbed to the idea of having to take it again. I was never up as early as I was that morning, because worrying about medical school was my only full time job. It was late July, one of those days where at 6am I could already feel the heat radiating through my bedroom window. Knowing I didn’t have to study, I got out of bed with an energy that I hadn’t felt since before finals week of my junior year. I never slept well anymore: I worked every shift at the flash card factory. That day, though, was going to be different.
I was going to the hospital to shadow a surgeon who I had met at an honor society induction for my brother, where she was the guest speaker. Dr. Kate Haggarty (name changed), a gynecological surgeon, was expecting me to meet her at 7:00am in the hospital lobby. I had to hurry. She told me in an e-mail not to wear anything fancy; I’d be changing as soon as I got there. Naturally, this was a problem. What is “not too fancy”? I grabbed a polo shirt from my closet excitedly. Pulling on a pair of black yoga pants, I stared at my sneakers, wondering if doctors really wear Nike Shox every day like they do on TV. I put them on just in case. I didn’t bother with make-up because I didn’t need to look good to be a shadow. I looked in the mirror at the polo shirt/yoga pants/Nike combination. I didn’t look like a doctor. I looked like a kid. Giving up, I went downstairs where my parents were going about their morning routine. My mom looked up from the coffee maker.
“That’s what you’re wearing?”
I sighed. My dad knew better than to approach the subject and simply wished me luck. Luck, however, had not been a part of my pursuit of medical school thus far and did not intend to make an appearance that morning, either. After several rather unlucky attempts to start the car, I ended up crashing my dad’s commute to work. As we pulled up in front of the lobby to the hospital, he didn’t wish me luck again but instead just said “Have fun!” I got out of the car feeling like I was six years old, going off to school after kissing Dad goodbye. All I was missing was my lunchbox. For a second I was almost disheartened, but then I saw Dr. Haggarty pull into the parking lot in her Infiniti. The excitement was back.
Stepping through the doors of the hospital was like crossing a threshold into another world. The entire hospital hummed with an energy unlike anything I had ever felt. Doctors swirled through the hallways holding charts and IV bags, nurses ran from room to room, machines beeped and whirred. We passed through a waiting room with a cathedral ceiling and a wall of windows through which the sun poured in. The people waiting there seemed eerily nervous in contrast to the warm yellow glow that filled the room. Walking down the hallway to Dr. Haggarty’s office, I was overwhelmed. Everyone knew Dr. Haggarty: said hello to her, asked her about her patients, joked about recent procedures. I was in the presence of a celebrity. She played the part well.
When we got into the doctor’s locker room, we were faced with an entire wall of what looked like giant stacks of pajamas. Sizing me up, Dr. Haggarty grabbed a top and bottom from a shelf labeled “medium”. I slipped into the scrubs, the cotton soft from many wearers before me. I hung my polo shirt and yoga pants on a hanger that Dr. Haggarty handed me as she put her hair net on. Turning to the sink behind me, I looked into the mirror at my bare face. The scrubs hung loosely on my body; the color of the cotton was the exact same blue as my eyes. I didn’t look like a kid anymore. Dr. Haggarty smiled at me in the mirror, and we walked out.
Before the morning’s first surgery, we went to check on the patient to explain the surgery prep procedures and make sure everything was going according to plan. I stood next to Dr. Haggarty as she went over the length of the procedure and some post-op instructions. The patient, a woman of forty or so, looked at me and asked if I was going to be helping out with her hysterectomy. I laughed nervously and looked at Dr. Haggarty, who told the woman that I was just observing for the day. She joked that she was trying to scare me out of going to medical school. The patient smiled trustingly and remarked that she was in good hands as long as Dr. Haggarty was there.
We had finally made our way over to the OR corridor, where several operating rooms were lined up next to each other. Outside of OR 8, we stood next to each other and washed our hands at the faucet-less sink after putting on our surgical masks. The mask was tight on my face, so my voice came out in a muffled “yes” when Dr. Haggarty asked me if I was ready to go in.
The OR was freezing cold, a palpable ten degree difference from the temperature just outside in the hallway. Dr. Haggarty introduced me to everyone in the room: the head nurse, the surgical nurses, the anesthesiologist technicians, and the assisting surgeon. Brian, an anesthesiologist technician, told me to let him know if I needed anything or felt strange during the surgery. I assured him that I would be fine.
The patient who we had just been talking to only ten minutes before was now out cold, a breathing tube coming out of her mouth like a snorkel. I stood in awe as everyone in the room participated in an elaborate dance to finish the preparations necessary to begin the surgery. The patient was covered with a cloth, tools were carefully lined up on tables, and machines were connected and turned on.
Finally, the surgery began. I stood at the patient’s head under the impossibly bright surgical lights which shone hotly on my skin. It was then that I understood why the rest of the OR was kept so cold: under those lights, wearing full surgical gear, I felt myself start to sweat. I watched as Dr. Haggarty made her first incision, leaning further and further over the patient’s body to get a closer look. The scalpel moved smoothly across the patient’s skin, trailed by a thin ribbon of deep red blood. I was fascinated, and the only thing I remember thinking was that it was the best thing I had ever seen. I watched as the scalpel cut through layer after layer, each a better color than the last. I didn’t notice the cauterizing tool the other surgeon was using to stop the bleeding, which was now heavy. I didn’t notice the smoky flesh smell that crept into the recycled air flow of my surgical mask. I didn’t feel my knees go weak until I realized I was holding onto the metal post next to the operating table. I didn’t even see it coming.
As if on cue, Brian caught me in his arms and eased me onto a small stool. My eyes jerked open to the strong smell of ammonia, and I looked at Brian.
“It’s okay. You’re going to be alright.”
I already knew it was true. It was at that moment that I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I wanted the operating room, the hum of the hospital, the whirring machines, the cornflower blue scrubs. I wanted all of it, forever. It was a moment of clarity in a foggy summer of study. But like all moments, it passed, succumbing to the onset of embarrassment. I smiled weakly and mumbled something about not making a good first impression. Everyone in the OR laughed including Dr. Haggarty, whose hands were busy inside her patient’s torso.
The head nurse stood me up and took me outside of the room into the hallway, asking me if I had eaten breakfast that morning. Of course I hadn’t, I had forgotten about it in the excitement of the morning. I walked methodically next to her. One step. Another. Epinephrine. Anterior pituitary. Enzyme specificity. The words floated through my head, my knees still weak. I was a little more hopeful they would mean something someday.
After an eternity of steps, the nurse opened the door to the doctor’s lounge. Immediately she was holding orange juice, a blueberry muffin, and a cold towel. I took them from her numbly and began to eat as she put the cold towel on my neck. A few nurses at a table were watching me, snickering. I was past embarrassment when a doctor came in, eyeing me through his tortoiseshell glasses.
“We have a casualty!” he said knowingly.
I could barely muster a smile, so I took another bite of the muffin.
“Summer of 1979. I was a third-year student. I was hung-over. It happens to the best of us.”
This time the smile was easy. He asked the nurse if I was going back in, and she told him that I needed to finish the muffin and orange juice first. Before I knew it, she was leading me back towards the OR, handing me a new surgical mask, and telling me to re-wash my hands. As I walked through the door, Dr. Haggarty gave a little cheer and continued her work. I was put on the outskirts of the room for a few minutes to ensure that I fully regained my composure. As I watched the surgery at a distance from the hot lights, goosebumps crept onto my skin. Suddenly, I felt a warm blanket around my shoulders. Brian had been holding it, and noticing my look of surprise, told me that they used the blankets all the time. I watched the rest of the surgery standing next to Brian, both of us draped in our blankets.
After the last surgery was over, Dr. Haggarty and I walked back to the locker room, and I grabbed my clothes which were still hanging exactly where I left them ten hours earlier. When we got back to Dr. Haggarty’s office, I watched her look over more files as I waited for my mom to pick me up. She told me I could change, or if I wanted to, I could wear the scrubs home. I stayed in the scrubs. Dr. Haggarty talked to me about each of our patients that day, reminding me of the facts of each surgery and telling me her post-op plans for each of them. She told me that one of them would have to be put on an estrogen supplement to regulate her hormones after the surgery. Estrogen. Progesterone. It wasn’t just the words that were starting to make sense. After struggling through physics and organic chemistry, studying for the MCAT, and filling out the primary application that seemed to have no end, everything had gotten a little out of focus. But here was this day, just ten hours, where I couldn’t even make it past the first two minutes of a surgery, that brought everything back into view. I knew that if I could just get through all of those words, it would be worth it someday. I knew I belonged to medicine, even if getting there was going to be the biggest challenge I’d ever face. I had to have it. If I wasn’t sure of it before, I was then. I wanted the challenge, even if the first of which was staying conscious in the operating room.
When my mom arrived at the hospital, Dr. Haggarty walked me outside to the car. I apologized for the events of the morning, to which she replied that she had already forgotten about.
“You got right back up,” she said, “and that’s what I like about you.”
It didn’t matter that she had only known me for a day, Dr. Haggarty liked me. I was getting that six-year-old feeling again. After arranging a few more dates that I could come in to see more surgeries, Dr. Haggarty hugged me and disappeared back over the threshold of the hospital. It was a weirdly perfect ending to a weirdly perfect day. I turned and got into the car, the blue scrubs seeming entirely out of place against the tan leather seat. My mom looked at me eagerly from the driver’s side.
“Nice outfit!” she said. “How did it go?”
All the words were gone. I looked back at her and laughed.