Diarrhoea, Wheeze and Swollen Finger. Those are the titles of my first three academic weeks at Medical School, and as you might imagine I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about poo and pus. I feel as though I’ve been lurched out of reality and stuffed full-thrust up a human’s arse, where I am beginning to re-adjust and observe my surroundings.
And it is fascinating.
I’ve always loved the gut, and those who know me know I take true delight in accurately describing each turd that I lay to friends, family and colleagues. Recently I gave a talk to thirty young parents and their infants at an event called ‘Babble Talks’, where I excitedly described how humans are in fact doughnut-shaped, with a hole running through the middle, and that that hole is our gut. Their blank faces suggested that this concept is perhaps not as fabulous to others as I find it. To me, it is an epic evolutionary marvel that humans (and others) have managed to create a warm squashy environment within themselves where bacteria live and food can be mashed, from which our cells can pick and chose molecules that we then assimilate into our own tissues. And of course, the rest is sent to the rectum.
Alongside my delight at studying the physiology, anatomy and pathology surrounding humans comes the slightly painful amount that we need to know. It’s been only three weeks and already my brain is smarting from just how many types of cell, cytokine, bone and bacteria there are.
Of course at the forefront of all of this is how it is going to help the patient, which is something I am adjusting to. As somebody who likes to gobble up knowledge I need to trim myself back so that I can aim to be a good practicing doctor and not a walking medical encyclopaedia. Do I need to know the exact structural pathway of folate synthesis in bacteria to be a good doctor? Maybe not. Do I need to know exactly where the liver is? Potentially.
Knowing something like ‘exactly where the liver is’, by the way, turns out to be a little harder than I expected (I am still yet to find my housemate’s liver, and concede that she may not have one, or it has moved).
Occasionally I catch myself, and I feel morbid and heartless for finding such delight in our biology. Last week I stood inspecting a lung in one hand and a heart in the other whilst beside our cadaver. I screwed up my face with confusion as a I delicately replaced the organs back into the human’s open chest, trying to match up the blood vessels and eventually becoming frustrated with how 3D humans are. Just too many vessels.
But then I glanced sideways down at the hand of the cadaver, and like a swift punch in the stomach I remembered that this person has lived, laughed and eventually lost.
Last Friday night myself and my five first year medic housemates sat around our very studenty kitchen table with a bottle of wine and discussed how we feel about death. Death has already touched us all in different ways, and it’s something that we’re going to become familiar over the course of our careers. I hope that I am strong enough in the future to pick up the grief that I witness and experience and carry it with me.
I have been thinking a lot about my Dad since coming to Swansea, and have found fresh waves of grief washing over me. After three weeks at Swansea, I feel like I’ve been there for years. I sigh with relief when I visit my childhood home in London for the weekend; I run into my room and stuff my face into the pillow of my bed. I feel homesick.
I’m not sure why I feel like this. I’ve been away from home before for much longer and much further afield. Perhaps it’s because I’ve moved onto something new, something that my Dad will never know about. I feel as though I’ve moved physically further from him by coming to Swansea, and further still in time by stepping onto the next stage of my career. Part of me wants to freeze time so that it stands still forever, so that I can never move further away from him. What will I feel like in 5, 10 or 20 years? It terrifies me that one day I could’ve lived more years without my Dad in my life than with him.
For the second time this week, I find myself tearing up on the train thinking about all of this. When I think about death it sometimes feels overwhelming. The grief I know so many people feel as a result of injury and illness coupled with my interest in medicine leave me balanced on a knife edge; with the glory of living biology on one side and the tragedy of loss on the other.
I text my family about the last time I went to B&Q with my Dad, he pushed my sister and I on a trolley and we laughed as we picked from the various ‘shades of white’ a colour for our living room. Then I put down my phone, open ‘An Introduction to Pathology’ and start reading.