Blood, burning bodies and other insanities we get used to

The study of medicine is widely advertised as beautiful: you’ll have the power and knowledge to heal and help people. And it is, at times, beautiful. Anatomy is beautiful. The healing power of bodies is beautiful. The autonomy of chemical processes occurring in the human body is beautiful. The brain is beautiful.

The study of medicine is often idealized by outsiders. The romance of being a doctor, a hero in the eyes of many. You work in a terrain of mystery, and you seem to know everything about everything, about processes many cannot begin to understand. How I wish this was all true. It is a beautiful profession, no doubt about that. And it’s incredibly interesting; the human body is mesmerizing. However, there are sides the outside world knows little about. You get to see and experience things the average being won’t see and experience. And the weirdest thing of all: you get used to it.

Let me elaborate. I remember the first time, years ago, that a faintly familiar smell entered my nostrils upon calling ‘Incision!’. Faintly familiar to me, but most likely not to any of my peers. The smell reminded me of the farrier, the smell of burning hoofs. This similar smell, however, came from a human. No horse hoofs, but human skin. Human flesh. I’m getting more used to it every day, but when you come to think of it, it’s extremely weird and unusual. In all other settings it would be something criminal, something dark. But here you are in the process of helping someone, even of healing someone while cutting and burning away.

One thing outsiders can imagine we get used to is blood. Blood and medicine are close colleagues, you must be able to stomach at least a few drops of blood if you want to be a doctor. Everyone in medicine world will come into contact with blood, one day or another. The first time I had blood on my whites I was proud, because it symbolized how close to medicine I was. Real medicine. Medicine in practice. Blood comes in many forms. I’ve had drops on my clogs and white suit. I’ve seen it gushing from an artery, reaching high in the air, creating a fan of little drops on your sterile coat. I’ve seen black blood, liters of it obstructing a colon. Or little clots obstructing vital arteries. Pools of blood filling the little surgical area carefully resected. Fresh red blending with a minute-old darker version. And, one my olfactory nerves won’t easily forget, the splash that comes with the placenta, after the baby is born. Quite nauseating that one.

We see yellow toenails, a rain of skin flakes coming off shins, cancerous breasts, teeth askew or fallen out, hairy genitals, warts in all shapes and sizes, black rotting toes, incurable wounds, uncovered muscles and tendons, lime chunks obstructing arteries, expectorated greenish mucus. We smell blood, urine, stool, pus, mucus, bile, vomit, bad breaths, sweat, placenta… The general sickness of people. Sick people stink. Full stop. They can’t help it, but they stink. My nose is forever ruined. And we have to deal with it. You can’t show your disgust, you act as if you don’t smell any bad odor or don’t see any disturbing sight. No, it’s all normal. And yes, we do get used to it, however disturbing it may be.

You see people in their worst conditions. Healthy people are beautiful, radiating life. Sick people are ugly, radiating sickness and death through the entire building. I can imagine people disliking hospitals, even being afraid of it. No wonder people get depressed by it, as it’s a place that radiates sickness. Sick people have every right to be unhappy, their bodies being cut open, laying in their own shit, smelling their own sweat. Being sick, laying in the hospital, however well treated and taken care of, is quite humiliating for people. So, contrary to popular belief about medicine, it being beautiful and all,  sickness isn’t beautiful. No, sickness is not beautiful at all.

It is better being said that physiology is beautiful. Pathology is not. Interesting, sure, but not beautiful. It destroys people, literally.


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