Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bone of my bones

[Rated R – Don’t read this while eating or if you have a weak stomach or if you’re a girl (in the middle-school sense of the word :)]

Today I sawed open a man’s head. First I had to scalp him, scraping the skin and muscle from his head pulling with my gloved fingers on one hand and cutting the tissue beneath with a scalpel wielded by my other. And then I had to saw open his head. I turned on the Stryker saw, a foot-long white handle and motor connected to a steel semi-circular toothed blade. I flipped the switch, and a high-pitched whir come from the motor as it drove the blade, rotating it an eighth inch back and forth in a blur.

I held the saw with both hands, held it perpendicular to the forehead, and the pressed it to the bone. The high pitch whirring lowered its pitch. Bone like sawdust shot from side to side by the now-invisible movement of the blade. The pitch lowered still and the saw labored; the blade was buried a quarter inch in the bone. The bone dust continued to flow out of the hole, and then above it rose white smoke. And I smelled it.

In four months of anatomy, I’ve smelled a lot of strange things. But this smell has haunted me all day. I have smelled burning flesh before and it turns the stomach. But burning bone turned my soul. It didn’t make my lip curl as the smell of flesh does, but it did make my soul writhe.

Inch by inch, I cut a circle around from forehead to back. Then I cut that dome in two pieces to more easily remove it from the brain it was stuck to. After prying off these two pieces of skull, I exposed the brain. Covered in blood vessels and pinky-purple, it was an incredible thing to behold. It showed evidence of my sloppiness, a few cuts where the saw slipped from the bone and cut a gash into the tender tissue below. It was to be expected in such a violent dissection.

I cut off another piece from the back of the skull to the brainstem and finally I turned off the saw. I looked at my clothes; I was covered in a white powder that used to be skull. Having finished this cut, my lab partner cut the brainstem, and handed me the three-pound piece of meat which once housed a man.

It should have been traumatic, but it wasn’t. A well adjusted person should not be able to do what I just did without having his stomach turn. I turned off my emotions as an unwanted accessory and did what I was supposed to. But the smell has lingered, outliving the image of the bone and brain-splattered table which I was able to leave behind in the anatomy lab. The smell followed me today. After class. At dinner. While reading. Even now.

I wonder if there is something in the bone beyond marrow. I wonder if there is a special holiness to a man’s bones. Have I somehow defiled something holy?

1 comment:

  1. The brain is incredible. My guess is, you are being haunted by that smell. But it is your own brain that is haunting you. You anatomy types can tell me why it is that scents (above all else) can trigger especially strong memories. I think it has something to do with the simple proximity of the olfactory portion of the brain to that which is responsible for memories. Anyway, who's to say that it doesn't work in reverse? If a smell can trigger memories, why cant a memory trigger smells? We're talking about something that was obviously on your mind all day, and especially as you sat down to eat and blog about it. Maybe you remembering that moment so vividly caused your brain to relive that smell.

    When I think back to my days of cross counrty running, I can smell the stagnant irrigated fields along which I used to run. And when I think about holidays at home, I swear I can smell the gravy my mom used to make. Near to me as they are, I don't think either of those experiences have quite the same impact as sawing through a man's skull.

    Just a thought