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An uncomfortable yet intimate piece on something I hold dear to my heart: fragrance and the sense of smell. It is broken down into short vignettes that pinpoint four vivid scents on a casual clinic day.

Who can deny the forthcoming and nostalgic power that a fragrance can have over you? I often ask myself, if I were given the choice to keep one of my five senses, which would I choose? You can close your eyes and remove sight, you can cease to touch something and remove sensation, you can plug your ears to remove sound and you can cleanse your palate to remove taste, but one cannot voluntarily turn off their sense of smell. 

I start the day like most of us do: stimulating the needy vessels we call bodies with caffeine. As I open up my coffee jar to dispense ground Turkish coffee beans, I am met with a hint of loving bitterness. It carries a comforting brown sugar warmth that often stirs a sense of weakness given my inherent dependency on this substance but also commands secure boldness through notes of molasses and dark chocolate.

Picking up my cat to express my unconditional and irrational love that I don’t think I’ve experienced towards another being, I get the soothing aroma of vanilla and rose fabric softener that has enveloped him from the washed bed sheets he was sleeping on, coupled with the sweet yet intoxicating pheromone of a feline — a musk I wish I could bottle up. As I move closer to kiss him goodbye, I get a whiff of dampened down chicken liver mousse that diffuses out of his mouth which pushes me away a little but is overcome by the love I have for this marvelous creature. This daily interaction that starts off my day leaves me warm and longing to return home, making the cyclic routine a little more bearable. 

Rushing into a freshly sanitized clinic room, I am rebounded by the lingering stench of synthetic lemon-tinged Chemex wipes masking the overly aldehydic and pungent chemical smell penetrating my olfactory bulb. I break down this smell into top, middle and base notes to formulate a fragrance for antisepsis. Add to this the wafting remnants of Virginia tobacco cigarette smoke that failed to depart with the last patient who came in. This antiseptic scent continually reinforces the pure nature of the physician-patient relationship and the constant need for us in the training environment to remind ourselves of our duty, just as the room needs sanitizing over and over again before and after each patient. 

As I finally leave for the day and step out into the rainy world less concerned with sterility, I close my eyes, cease to touch, plug my ears and cleanse my palate, all to be welcomed and met with petrichor: a reaction between geosmin, ozone and plant oils. In other words, the smell of rain trickling into dry soil. I inhale deeply, savoring the earthy aroma that diffuses from the damp ground. The petrichor gently draws me in, transporting me to a realm where each raindrop seems to carry with it a story, as if nature itself whispers secrets to those who care to hear. I carry with me these olfactory experiences as a fragrant map of memories, creating a rich tapestry that defines the narrative of each day.

Image credit: “Espresso extraction, naked portafilter” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Schill

Abdullah A. Memon (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Medical College of Wisconsin

Abdullah is a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, WI, Class of 2027. In 2022, he graduated from The Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Neuroscience and a minor in Arabic. He enjoys cooking, traveling, and cafe hopping. After graduating medical school, Abdullah is planning on pursuing a surgical career in the fight against cancer.