The jet-black lung rolled cold and lifeless across the exam table. It had belonged to an avid smoker, and now it was slithering toward an even less noble fate.
This week-long summer cadaver lab at a major medical school was my attempt to find out whether a career with scalpels and syringes might be for me. We poked around intestines, squinted at a cross-section of a brain; we realized that one of the cadavers was still wearing fingernail polish. Even so, the experience seemed more procedural than personal. I was just doing my job, not feeling the invasiveness of our work.
The professor called one last rotation, and I shuffled over to examine a chest cavity. The professor reached inside for a diseased mass. Her gloves were slippery. She fumbled with the lung for a few seconds, and we watched her struggle, frozen. Then, it happened. The lung headed straight for the linoleum floor. Gravity had already written the ending.
Out of nowhere came the hands of one of my lab mates. He caught the lung inches from the ground. The high school boy looked queasy. The group burst out in laughter. How could we not? He had made a game-winning catch, one that would go down in medical history.
And then my mortality hit. Part of me felt ashamed that I had acted so light-hearted about the most serious of matters. Another part of me was sad; I’d just lost some armor by walking into that lab. Death was no longer obscure, but so close I could grasp it with my latex gloves.
After that summer lab, I volunteered at a hospital that treats the poorest patients. I worked on the pediatric floor, often taking care of 18-month-olds left alone overnight because their parents had to work or had other children at home. I spent time with a teenager immobilized for weeks with a leg infection, desperate for conversation.
I had the chance to make small differences. One night, a college girl was admitted who had fallen while trying to hop a train. She needed both legs amputated. Her mom asked me for a blanket for her daughter, so I went to the warming closet to find just the right quilt. Another day, I found a pair of winter boots in the donation closet to give to a six-year-old who had been walking the snowy streets in sandals.
No, I am not the surgeon amputating the legs, or the nurse injecting the little girl with insulin. But I offer something, make a connection, however small. Maybe those bigger medical contributions will come later, but for now what I want is to make those small bits that add up to something.
Life can be as awful as losing your legs under a train wheel, death as awkward as giving your body to science only to have it fall apart in front of giggling teenagers. The boy who made that catch somehow knew how uncomfortable we would feel if that lung hit the floor. And we breathed a sigh of relief that he’d instinctively done the right thing.
Sometimes for the living or the dead, the least
we can do is still enough. Even making a diving catch. F