I have always wanted to do the right thing. In early life, the time for passive learning, this was to do things “the way my father does it,” or “the way my mother tells me.” I observe this to be often said and used in the Eskimo culture, with the American Indians and in some other cultures that are successful and have been successful for a few hundred or several thousand years. Success is assured using this S.O.P..
My first story illustrates for us the wisdom of this “plan A.”
At age 33 years, I did not obey plan A and I paid for it with guilt and the prospect of lower horizons in school, less wisdom and knowledge acquired, and less chance for social, spiritual, perhaps even physical opportunities. I was told, “don’t get a job while you are in school. Your job is to learn. We will help out with the money ($150 a month).”
The American system seemed to be different, however. It taught us to become independent early, learn to take care of ourselves, to be adventuresome, perhaps to “go west, young man”, and to begin to learn through the School of Hard Knocks.
And so it was in me to take that job and have the awful learning experience, possibly directly from God.
After a few years had passed since this incident retold in the first of the two vignettes, I went East to the best schooling advised. I then went West to seek my professional fortune when the two paths diverged in a yellow wood. I chose the more academic, less lucrative path, and I reached the top of the hill. But as in the story of Tantalus, I was rewarded with a large reminder that in America, we all get a job or we starve.
I felt that being Chief of the best plastic surgery division in the best university with the best specialty in the world, with great social, intellectual and physical systems working well and as President of the Educational Foundation of the National Plastic Surgery Society was worthy of high praise from the family in the form of monetary assistance. However, what the family saw was my version of American starvation. The situation in the second of the following two vignettes presented an amusing contradiction. After being bawled out for having a job, I found myself being bawled out for NOT having a job that paid sufficiently.
My lesson learned was that in medicine and in life, we follow the rule of paradoxes. In another way, both are like a trampoline. When we go up to the top, we find ourselves falling right back to the bottom.
The Sin of Greed – My First Week in Medical School
My father had worked hard because he wanted to be a doctor but didn’t have enough money to make it through medical school. He dropped out and went into business. Years later, when I dropped out of business school because I did not like it, I asked him what to do. He said, “Why did you go to business school? I said it was because he was a businessman and “I was following you. What would you do if you were me?” He said he would be a doctor. So I switched the next day to premed, after being two days in business school, and went on to become a doctor.
My father put me through medical school by giving me $150 per month for all the different costs. I was very grateful for that. But he made me promise that in the course of studying I could have jobs in the summer, but that during school time I would not work, that I would concentrate on by studies. I agreed to that.
When I got to medical school, I guess it was John Kampine (who later went on to become professor of anesthesia) who offered me an opportunity to embalm cadavers in the basement of the medical school for $35 a case. Although I thought twice about this because I knew my promise to God and my father that I wouldn’t work during studies, I accepted. The $35 swayed me, and I rationalized that it was part of my studies because it involved anatomy and a small operation on the femoral artery and vein.
I remember my first cadaver came in October, a classical rainy night with thunder in the basement of a brick building. I arrived with my black bag with all my equipment and an anatomy book. I had studied the femoral artery and vein very carefully.
I went down to this dreary damp room, the morgue, which had pipes in the ceiling that contained formaldehyde under pressure. I was to take the hoses and insert them into the femoral artery and vein, filling their systems with formaldehyde and preserving the cadaver from bacterial degeneration. So here I was with a cadaver, hearing the rain and thunder against the basement windows. The poor body weighed about 88 lbs, a withered, famished guy from skid row – I thought he must have died of starvation.
But then I thought, “Well, now, this guy looks like maybe he isn’t dead yet.” I got out my stethoscope, listened to his heart and lungs, tried his pulse, looked in his eyes with my ophthalmoscope, and decided that he was indeed dead. So then I started my dissection and began pouring formaldehyde into the veins. After I’d put it in about a gallon, I noticed that he began to puff up and look very healthy. He was gaining weight under my eyes. I thought, “Oh my God, what if he wakes up, what am I going to do?”
I tested him again, and he was still dead. I put more formaldehyde in and he became still healthier looking, almost robust. As I was thinking about life and death in this situation, and my guilt for doing the job, he suddenly led out a loud “Ooomph” as air came out of his stomach up through the esophagus and vocal cords under the pressure of the formaldehyde. And his arms, under the pressure of the fluid, went from lying at his side to straight out, a huge motion as if he were alive and intended to grab me. I spontaneously flew back and hit the brick wall, thinking, “Oh dear God, I’m so sorry for doing this.”
I sewed him up quickly and resigned from my job. I told God I was sorry and I went on happily ever after, not taking another job until my second year in medical school. And it was not this kind of job.
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