I didn’t think this would be an apology letter. But it is.
When I opened up the gurney for the first time, I expected to be overcome with this profound, epiphanic wave of emotion. I thought this would be one of those slow motion, cinematic, defining moments in my training. I thought I would be solemn. I thought I would be grateful. I thought I would be curious. I wasn’t.
You were overweight.
I could see the smooth rolls of skin around your sides, around your neck, around your arms. I could see your stomach underneath you, like a balloon being pressed under the weight of your coarse, wide back. I could see the hours that we would spend peeling layer after layer of fat off you.
I lost any sort of avidity that comes with being a fresh-faced student. This was going to be a long semester.
Three days a week, we would come into lab, spend a few hours removing fat from your body and leave without finding 70 percent of the structures we were supposed to. At first, we would try to find some of the nerves and blood vessels embedded in your fat. At first, we were careful about leaving as much skin intact as possible. At first, we cared.
As the semester went on, all that quickly disappeared. Our cuts become coarser and deeper. Your body became smaller and smaller. Our frustration became louder and crasser.
We weren’t learning anything from you. The adipose permeated every inch of your body, making even large muscles indiscernible. The nerves and arteries were the same color of the adipose; as we cut away the fat, we’d inadvertently cut away all the neurovasculature. Your fat oozed a milky liquid, so much liquid that it formed a pool around your body with bits of fat globules and pieces of skin floating around. It was awful. It was frustrating. It was a waste of time.
And then we got to your lungs.
Covered by metastases, so many metastases. Small, hard black nodules pervading your smooth pink-tinted lung tissue. One by one, these small tumors had spread through your body and had grown, carelessly destroying the surrounding tissue.
The wave that I was expecting earlier came now and in a different form. It was no cinematic epiphany. It was a slow, sobering realization. A realization of how quickly we can lose our humanity. I looked at your body and I didn’t feel anything. I did not see a human body lying in front of me. I saw muscles. I saw skin. I saw adipose.
I saw how erringly easy it is to lose yourself.
You did not teach me the human anatomy. You showed me something far greater.