Tearin’ Up (Someone Else’s) Heart

(Did you catch the 90’s song reference?)

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re currently in the middle of the “Homeostasis” block, where we cycle through systems of the body – the heart, the kidneys, and the lungs. An integral part of most medical educations involves something called “organ recitals.”

An organ recital is a session where small groups of med students cluster around a pathologist and a cart. The cart is filled with organs, all covered by smelly, formalin-soaked rags. The expectation with organ recitals is that you come prepared to apply your Powerpoint knowledge of anatomy to real, excised organs.

It’s exactly as gross and discomfiting as it sounds. (Yes, that’s a word.)

Everyone in your group files in, puts on gloves, and clasps their hands awkwardly in front of them. (This is, incidentally, an important habit to develop as more often than not the gloves will shortly be covered in various unmentionables.)

The pathologist introduces herself and tells you that she will choose volunteers at random to describe the various hearts arrayed on her cart. The cart contents, wrapped as they are, look disturbingly similar to an Asian meat market.

If you've never been to one of these, the smell never leaves you. Never.

If you’ve never been to one of these, the smell never leaves you. Never.

The pathologist, explaining the rules, starts trying to make eye contact with one of the poor med students standing around the periphery. Most everyone successfully avoids this eye contact, except, well, me. Crap.

“Nathan” – it’s on my student ID, stupid move – “come on up here.”

I trudge to the front of the room with all the excitement of a puppy about to be punished for pooping on the carpet. She uncovers the first heart and indicates to me with a nod of the head.

No thanks. I’d just as soon rather not handle a slimy, smelly human heart with my gloved hands, thank you. The instructor picks up the blob of fat and whatever else a heart is made of, and drops it into my hands. Awesome.

Just like this.

Just like this.

“What do we have here, Nathan?”

“A heart.” Genius, I am. I receive glorious affirmation from the instructor.

I am, however, having a bit of a problem. It’s surprising how difficult it is to orient yourself to a shapeless blob of holes and fat, which is basically what a heart looks like. I’m not sure if I’m staring at the front or the back or the bottom. I am somewhat aware that I am holding the heart upside down.

“So, Nathan, you’re actually holding the heart upside down.”

Thought so. I turn the heart over and open it like a Cadbury egg. Yeah, okay, not a good choice of visual. Too bad. There’s a giant black mark down one side of the heart. It looks like someone colored it in with a Sharpie.

“What do you see?”

“A big dark streak.” One of the cardiology residents who talked to us in the simulation suite last week gave us some advice for the wards that I was in the middle of applying: When prompted by a superior for information, give the absolute bare minimum. When you start expounding, you’re most likely digging yourself a deep, dark hole. I was attempting to minimize risk.

“That’s right. And what do you think happened here?”

Uh oh. I figure that given our past five lectures had been on heart attacks, this had a good shot of being a myocardial infarction. At least, I had no idea what else it could be. I guess.

“That’s right!” Joy. “What coronary artery was occluded here?”

I had no clue whatsoever. I was still having trouble figuring out what side of the heart I was staring at. (Anatomy is, by a long shot, my worst area.) So I guess at the one artery I could remember: “Left anterior descending?”

“That’s a good guess [emphasis hers], but no,” came the reply. Sagging defeat. She went on to explain why my answer was totally wrong, and an even mildly competent medical student who had so much as glanced at an anatomy atlas would have arrived at the correct answer, while I stand there with a cold, slimy dead heart in my hand. An excellent Tuesday morning. Did I mention it was 8:15?

Finally relieved of my heart-wrenching duties (ha!), I regain my place in the circle , clasping my hands carefully in front of me while being careful to not let them touch my clothes.

They still smell anyway.

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8 thoughts on “Tearin’ Up (Someone Else’s) Heart

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