Nervus Intermedius-How Gross Anatomy Almost Made A Cadaver Of Me-Part 5-End

The exam began as they all had: a mass of stressed out students milling about, pulsing out enough manic power to re-animate the dead. Ding! And we were off. As I made my way around the room, my skin tingled with prickly heat. I breathed evenly and tried to stay focused. I thought I was doing OK, but it was impossible to be sure. The new material covered the most anatomically complex part of the body: the cranial nerves. These come directly off the brainstem and control everything from the neck up. It is an impossible tangle of branching wires winding around and through imponderably tiny spaces, sinuses and structures all packed into a space the size of a grapefruit. Branches to the ears and eyes, the tongue and face. So complicated, so disorienting.

Circling the room, fatigue set in and my confidence flagged. I pictured another year with Julia Child of the dark arts — another year unable to rid my nostrils of the acrid-sweet odor of death and formaldehyde. Just Breathe. I was at the last station. I was breathing, breathing. I looked down, and what I saw made me audibly gasp. Now most people would have been horrified. But it wasn’t the fact that I was standing before a human head sliced in half lengthwise through the face. Maybe once, but not anymore. No. It was that the cut was made at a strange angle, off the sagittal, in order to render the way we had learned the anatomy useless to us.

I stared into this head — which lay like a split coconut — trying to get oriented. The minute was ticking away and its very passage kept me from focusing. I thought, This could be the question. The one I need. This one could save me. I know this goddamn anatomy. I need this. Touch nothing. But that’s not the same as cheating right? I can’t see where I am. I’ll just be gentle. What sinus is that? It looks all wrong. What if I just…. I’m going to be a doctor, right? It’s just the laying on of hands. What am I looking at?

“You have ten more seconds,” said Julia to Jacques. I looked to my left. I looked to my right. Everywhere murmuring, scribbling, pondering. I reached down carefully and slowly brought the two halves together. As they approached, it was like a familiar old road map had opened: internal acoustic meatus, seventh nerve, nervus intermedius! It’s nervus intermedius, of course. I gently let the coconut roll open again. I looked around for witnesses. Nothing. I jotted my answer, then closed my eyes, feeling my heart thump against my breast bone. I released a deep breath. Of course, nervus intermedius, what else? Ding!

My three dissection partners and I went out immediately for beer. It was crucial to beat the rest of our class to the pub so that we would have a couple drinks in us before being exposed to all the malignant post-exam energy. Even after such a well-demarcated climax, they would never stop talking about anatomy, the probable pass mark, specific exam questions, “whadja put for this, oh you did? I thought it was…” They had no off or even pause buttons. It was as if, years ago, they had gotten all worked up about their SATs and just stayed that way. But after a couple pints, we wouldn’t much care.

The Delicate Flower would take pleasure in shutting up our closest neighbors. They would leave in a huff, the vacuum would be filled, and the process would continue. “Alright Dumb and Dumber, I just got through telling your little buddies Itchy and Scratchy over there — you want to talk about the exam, you do it out of my earshot. Now beat it.”

But for now we were alone and we raised our glasses high.

Me: Marty number one, there may be others, but we’ll never forget you.

Frat boy: Marty could party.

Comic book man: Mahty old mate, we feel propa charlie about givin’ ya the ol’ slicey dicey, but lovely to have made your howdydo, and cheers a lot for the glands.

Delicate Flower: Marty, we didn’t know you in life, but in death you became our friend. You were there when we needed you. And what a package.

Male chorus: Fluids. Shifting fluids. Recognized phenomenon.

Delicate flower: My ass. Marty, the ladies of Baltimore salute you.

All: To Marty.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ll raise a flagon to that: To Marty and a well-told tale!

  2. Well, muchas gracias! To Marty!


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