Except for the first 15 minutes of introductions and pleasantries, the van was silent. There were a total of six of us, including the driver. Three were from the liver transplant team, while Dr. M and I were the heart team. The atmosphere seemed a little too ordinary to be a car full of surgeons and medical students driving to retrieve organs from a brain-dead patient three hours away. It was more like a road trip full of strangely quiet high school students than a caravan of doctors with a string of degrees and training under their belt, followed carefully by medical students trying to pretend that they are contributing something necessary to the fellows doing the actual work.
I was surprised. While everyone else grunted in affirmation, I stared blankly at the driver and asked for water. I had already eaten. After a sleepless night of anticipation, I had gulped down my sandwich an hour ago, expecting that there would be no time to do anything, much less food. The driver looked at me in surprise. "You sure you don't want anything?"
"I already ate."
He shrugged in understanding and went into the chain restaurant.
Coming into medical school, I didn't know what to expect from the medical world. I thought that since I would be at the medical school of my alma mater, I would know the ropes, at least a little bit. And though that is certainly true, medicine has been a whirlwind of surprises and opportunities at every corner. The transplant procurement team this year worked out a schedule with the first-year medical students, so that whenever there is a transplant to be procured, a first-year medical student would also be paged. I was lucky enough to be paged at 11 p.m. at night for a procedure the next day, giving me time to sleep and mentally prepare for the events to come. Others were not so lucky. Some pages came two hours before departure at 8 p.m., going as far as New York or North Dakota via plane.
When we arrived at our destination, we learned that the procedure had been pushed back because they had to reassign our operating room, and so there were none available at the time. Without so much a "meh," the surgeons collapsed onto the couches in the rest lounge and promptly went to sleep. I looked towards the second-year medical students on service with the liver transplant team, and he too pulled his sweater over his head to block out the TV in the background. I stared blindly at the TV for a little bit, questioning the logic behind what the news story was trying to convey about Obamacare, before giving up and pulling out my phone to try to study a little bit.
Given all the dramatic portrayal of the medical world by television shows and popular media, I've always had a weird image in mind that going into medicine would be kind of like going onto the set of Grey's Anatomy or House M.D. I thought I would be consistently stressed by either drama with fellow co-workers or at a scramble to determine the diagnosis for a patient. I knew it wasn't true, but there was always that niggling suspicion in the back of my mind. Thankfully, my experience so far has not suggested that either world is real, except for maybe that occasional little adrenaline rush to figure out the diagnosis under pressure, which is more enjoyable than stressful. Other people had told me the same thing, but it's hard to imagine it without experiencing it for myself. What does a doctor's day look like? What do surgeons talk about at the operating table? Do people really have sex in the locker rooms?
The fabled magic of holding a living organ in your hands, which serves as an addiction for so many transplant surgeons, is real. You would never expect it. And there is at least a certain protectiveness that transplant surgeons have towards the organs that they are about to procure. As the liver transplant team was working on the abdomen, and the thoracic team was opening up the chest, there was a moment when the sternum saw was coming too fast and risked damaging the liver. Without even thinking, one of the liver transplant surgeons reached over to protect the liver, jeopardizing his hand on the spinning electric saw. I don't think even the liver transplant surgeon realized, until afterwards, what he was doing.
For me, I found out it was like to hold a living heart and liver, still warm, in your hands, and to see the heart being sewn back into another person. I discovered what it feels like to stay at the hospital until it is nearly almost empty, but still have the energy to call your mother bursting with excitement. I have no idea what to expect in the coming years as I venture my way into a world gated by medical school admissions. It is slightly scary, but also very exciting.