EDITED BY JON MUKAND. AVIVA PRESS, P.O. BOX 1357, BROOKLINE, MASSACHUSETTS
"The hospital smell combs my nostrils." So begins a poem by Norman MacCaig from this marvelous anthology of poetry about illness, hospitals, patients, doctors, pain, and death. Just the thing to bring to your Aunt Sadie in 403, as she recuperates from her cholecystectomy. For her, there is a poem by Michael Harper on his gallstones. For me, this is a "scratch 'n sniff" book, a madeleine to awaken my right brain.
At age five, they pin me down, and pour diethyl ether on a gauze cone clamped over my 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, I am brought 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 grabbed me and pressed me into her shawls, mumbling blessings in languages I could not understand. The smell of her decay was stronger than the ether, but I could not push away. It might hurt her feelings, and she'd die right then and there.
At age nine, the orthopedist's cast saw terrifies 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 vhite 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 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 South Boston Irish brogue: "Call the priest!" Hearing this, Charon picked up his oar, and Cerberus wagged his tail. Miss McMahon saw to it that all who were about to leave us, regardless of race, religion, color or creed, received the last rites.
There was no escaping the hospital smell. It was everywhere, especially
in the underground tunnels that linked the buildings
one to another. The tunnels were alive with activity, as sleepless interns dashed among orderlies pushing litters and wheelchairs. It was a sweet smell, a mixture of decay and blood-soaked bandages and ether. Once again, I checked my balls.
The smell was strangely strongest in the tunnel leading to the hospital
kitchen. Once, I saw a cook mixing a stew with
a canoe paddle. As an employee, you could eat in the hospital dining room for thirty-five cents. I never ate there.
Miss McMahon gave me two weeks before she called my name along with
Eddie's. When she called two names, it meant a trip
to the morgue. To break me in, she chose Eddie, the senior orderly. He was experienced, strong, and he could read. He was also an
exhibitionist. He would stand in the doorway of the toilet across from the orderlies' bench, and flash his member at passers-by, male or female, with a soft, high-pitched "Whoo-hoo!" At the time, I had no idea what he was doing, or why.
I was shaking as we approached the bed. The body was like a mummy, wrapped
in white linen, a name tag attached to the big
toe. It was indeed as cold as the clay. It was stiff, too. All the clichés were true. A smail patch of reddish-yellow exudate seeped through the side of the chest.
"You take the feet, kid," Eddie said kindly. We rolled 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 encountered my cousin David, ten years my senior, a resident in pediatrics. "Ah, Dr. Ingall," he guffawed, “Lost your first patient, I see!”
The morgue was deathly quiet. As we entered, the hospital smell disappeared. In its place was a clean cold odor that was all too familiar. It smelled like a butcher shop. Both side walls were lined from floor to ceiling with rows of small square refrigerator doors, like the doors of an ice cream truck. It smelled 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 rolled out a tray, just like a file drawer, and slid our charge onto it, causing his head to bounce loudly. Eddie took the tag from the toe and slid it into the slot in the door. "Now we have a Coke, Mickey." He is the only person ever to have called me Mickey. For some reason a coke machine stood against the wall.
"Look at this, Mickey." He opened an ice cream door at calf level and rolled 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 said.
"No, Mickey, now we have a cigarette." We smoked a cigarette.
"We have to get back," I said,
"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 pleaded.
"Look, kid," Eddie's voice became 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 different."
In medical school, the formaldehyde returned, the life blood of my cadaver.
I knew who my cadaver would be. She had just
died, a great humanitarian like her would almost certainly donate her body to medical science, as they say.
"Thank you, Mrs. Roosevelt!" I would exclaim, as I opened the metal box for the first time. "Thank you for affording me this opportunity to help others by tearing you to shreds."
It wasn't her; it was a man. The formaldehyde in which he had been soaking had macerated his skin, giving him an ageless look. The cartilage of his nose had dissolved in the pickling juices, making him look as though he had gone one round too many with Archie Moore.
The smell of him was forever, like the tonsils that had remained in the jar on the bookcase. At first, I wore rubber gloves to dissect, but the smell came through, wrinkling my fingertips. At the end of the day, I scrubbed my hands with brushes and green soap, Lava soap, Ajax cleanser, dishwashing detergent, baking soda, lemons?and the smell remained, combing my nostrils as my hand brought the fork to my mouth at dinner. During lovemaking, the smell flashed strange fantasies across my mind.
After a while, it became a part of me. Only when I would return after a weekend away would I notice it. I stopped wearing gloves. I began 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 was 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 informed us. Sure enough, pulling it from its attachments to the bone, the marinated muscle looked like chunks of rare steak. It was eleven-thirty, and to my horror, my mouth was watering.
I was becoming a doctor.