Monday, October 29, 2012

Not a Ghost Story, a Gross Story

I chose RPI because of its Aeronautical Engineering Program.  However, before we had to declare our majors, I had already switched focus to Mechanical Engineering, because I liked the armaments more than the planes they were mounted on.  I worked two summer internships in the small caliber R&D group of a local arsenal, and almost every resume I sent out as graduation approached was to defense contractors.

How I ended up at a medical device company is still a mystery to me.  Originally it was, “temporarily, until a weapons designer job comes up.” Nineteen years later, and it’s been some fortunately long lasting temporariness.  When describing previous experience, I explained that I worked on a seventeen French dilator…it just happened to dilate at eight hundred rounds a minute.

(Slight pause while those who work for medical device manufacturers giggle a bit, and everyone else stares blankly.)
This is a life saving device.
However, it does depend which end of the device you are on.

There were many aspects of the medical device world where I was unceremoniously thrown into the deep end.  None of them were anywhere near as shock inducing as the trips to the medical school Teaching Hospital basement.

It’s a simple fact that doctors, and other professionals who work with them, need to learn from the real thing above and beyond simulations.  There are also times when a prototype medical device has to be checked out on human anatomy without putting a living person at risk.  When I first started in this field, our department contained several senior engineers, including my boss and his boss, who felt cadaver testing was an essential part of both the concept and career development process.

Because of this, my first years out of college contained a great many trips, both educational and test related, to the unwindowed basement of a local training hospital.  While there is no word remotely related to “desired” that described my trips, I thank any and all extra-dimensional beings willing to listen that I wasn’t involved with the test that had some coworkers down there in the middle of the night when the power went out.

I’m a huge fan of horror films and monster movies. Gore doesn’t bother me.  Violence is greatly appreciated.  But there are elements that make reality much more difficult to deal with than fantasy.

The big one was olfactory.  It wasn’t the smell one would expect from watching scary films, or even stumbling on the occasional festively aged road kill - rather the permeating, disinfecting, eye burning smell of formaldehyde. (Or more technically, the stuff they mix it with to cover the smell of formaldehyde.  I shudder to think what it actually smells like if that was an improvement.) Perhaps because of the items it had to mask the scent of, it was overwhelming and penetrating. I used to bring a complete change of clothes in a large Ziploc bag. As soon as the session ended, I’d make a bee line for the men’s room, swap what was on my back for the bag’s contents, and seal it as tightly as humanly possible.  The bag would then only be opened, pointing away from my face, directly above a primed and ready to fire washing machine, followed by the lid being slammed down as quickly as possible.

The color pallet was also unsettling.  Movie gore is often in a bright rainbow of hues, especially since using choices other than red for blood reduces the chance of a NC-17 rating.  The true colors are much greyer and drabber, with just enough purple, brown and yellow scattered about to make one wish it was all grey.

However, the most unsettling thing down there was the attendant.  Not in a mad scientist or his demented hunchback way, but merely as an example of the dark side of how humans can basically adapt to anything.  It was hard enough trying to figure out what not to focus on, without having to deal with him leaning on a random foot while eating an apple.

He was eating the apple.
The foot was not.
That would have been pretty cool!

One of our genius marketing guys found out the attendant used to work for New York City’s coroner’s office, and insanely said, “I bet you have some good stories.”


I believe I dumped my tray out after the story that ended with, “Hit the ground and splattered like a rotten cantaloupe.”

A word of advice, if you are unfortunate enough to be in one of these locations, and equally unfortunate to have one of these attendants say,

“Hey, you have to see this!” 


Remember those flesh eating beetles from Gorky Park fame? 

Wanna guess how they get bones shiny clean for museum and medical display?

I no longer have to guess.

With age and exposure, I have settled down a bit. Although this is primarily because the testing location has switched to a different teaching hospital with a windowed lab well above ground level.  Also our tests switched from needing complete vasculatures to only needing insertion sites…

Or as normal sane people would call them, limbs.

While the idea seemed like it would be more disturbing at first, it turned out it was far from it.

Part of it is the sunnier, much further from the storage area (and therefore less acridly pungent) room.

Part of it is being much more seasoned and experienced.

But I think the biggest part of it is that if I start to feel uncomfortable I can look away safely.  Because arms and legs very rarely have a face attached to them.

The problem with being calmer is getting overly focused on the task at hand.  A particularly difficult insertion was annoying me one day.  Part of the issue came from basic mass. Without the weight of what is usually attached to the insertion site, it kept sliding away from me.  I became more and more frustrated until I finally put down the prototype I was testing, grabbed the insertion site with both hands, and dragged it back to the starting position.

Then I danced around for a bit after identically copying the scream Lando made when the Sarlacc grabbed his leg in Return of the Jedi.

The unease is not unique to me. One woman nearly fainted when she thought the folded arm of the engineer directly in front of her (who clearly needed to spend more time in the sun) was a continuation of the arm of the test subject on the table directly in front of him.  He wiggled his fingers, and she went down.

My worst experience overall happened very early on in my career.  Anatomy training was scheduled for the department, and we were told if any of us had experiments to bring the required tools and parts. 

It didn’t start well.  My boss and I were the first one’s there, before the attendant cleaned up and was ready for us.   An untidy morgue is NOT a fun place to be, especially when the doors to the big storage room are open.  Dealing with anything in that room one at a time was extremely unpleasant.  A big store room, filled with unpleasantness, somehow exponentially increased the unpleasantness over the sum total of the individual unpleasantnesses.

We brought our gear over to one side of the room, and passed one of the individual unpleasantnesses (we later learned was used for a neurologist) on its way back to the big store room of unpleasantness.  When we were directly alongside, the top of its surprisingly empty skull fell open in a way that poorly sealed Tupperware often does, and heads often do not.

We stared at each other for a moment, looking much more like Abbot and Costello than professional medical device designers until my boss very matter of factly stated:

“I didn’t see that.”

I replied,
“Good, neither did I.”

We had our educational if unsettling anatomy lesson relatively (for the location) free of nerve wracking events.  Afterwards, it was time for us to conduct any experiments we had brought.  Eager young engineer that I was; I quickly pulled out my samples and force gage.

I then watched the rest of the much more experienced, and differently eager engineers, eagerly get the hell out of there as fast as they could.  This left me alone with the doctor who gave us the lesson…and the attendant.

The doctor helped me while the attendant went about his usual (and I use the term extremely loosely) work.  After getting an affirmative when he yelled over to the doc, “Are you done with this one?” He pulled out an electric rotary bone saw to go back to his task for the neurologist.

I steadfastly decided I was going to ignore the electric rotary bone saw.

Guess what? 

Ignoring an electric rotary bone saw is PRATICALLY IMPOSSIBLE!

This is due to volume (which echoed off the concrete walls)
And smell (which overwhelmed even the formaldehyde).

However, I was DETERMINED to ignore it by focusing all of my vision, attention and concentration on what I was doing.

The problem occurred when I realized that what I was doing was something I would NEVER want to focus all of my vision, attention and concentration on. 

Because of this, in a moment of weakness –

OK, in one of MANY moments of weakness –

I looked up.

And was just in time to see the attendant pull out a brain, whole.

This memory may be somewhat faulty due to the stress of the situation, but I could swear it came out with a perfect Lawrence Welk style finger popping noise.

I very professionally dropped my force gage and sample on the table with a blasting clatter that filled the silence after the electric rotary bone saw had stopped and uttered the (surprisingly even louder) equally professional:


The doctor calmly looked at me and inquired, “This wasn’t in the job description was it?”

I assured him he was correct, and also said, “No thank you,” when the attendant asked, “Wanna juggle this?”

While a considerably large pile of unpleasantness. Events like this one have had one beneficial side effect. 

An example follows:

I was hanging out with a crowd in a hotel room during a Science Fiction Convention some friends helped run.  There was a College Freshman/High School Senior Goth girl trying to prove to everyone how dark and edgy she was.  She did this by taking over the conversation about generally creepy things to talk “expertly” about her readings concerning modern world cannibalistic practices.  I was younger than now but old enough to know better, and also naturally odd enough to be impatient with people who try too hard to fake being weird. Some of the stuff she said simply didn’t match how reality works.

Well, to be honest, all of the stuff she said didn’t match how reality works, but some of it was directly contrary to biological mechanisms I had learned about from talking to the attendant and first hand observations of his work.

I took a sip of my drink and quietly asked, “Are you sure about that?” 

She quickly said, “Oh yes!” and went on to expound on her “proof,” all the while looking like a six year old who’s assured that they know the spookiest ghost story at the campfire.

I started innocently with, “It doesn’t work like that, instead it’s more like…”
And filled in the disturbing blanks.

She inquired, with great irritation, how I could refute her attempt at an unsettling tale. I detailed my experiences above, along with several examples of greater unpleasantness which I couldn’t find any way to make funny in this essay. 

Goth girl passed though looking deflated until she appeared to look even more uneasy than I felt in the presence of the large unpleasantness filled storage area.

I did leave the room alone, but my goal was not to connect with anyone that night.  Those experiences with unpleasantness allowed my use once again of a line first coined by the great Zaphod Beeblebrox as she left the group looking more than a little green around the gills:

“Don’t try to out-weird me kid.
I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal.” 



Bruce Fieggen said...

I think I accompanied you on one of those trips many years back and was fascinated with the bone cleaning crabs working on a limb.

I was bothered by the callous way the attendants treated the corpses donated to science. Why stick the scalpel in a leg when you want to use it later rather than place it on the table? That's just disrespectful in my opnion.

Oh, and I appreciated the dilator joke.

BTW. Can you get rid of the spam limiting 'Prove you're not a robot' thingie? It takes me at least four times to correctly read the jumbled up letters. I only ever get about one spam a week on my blog and Blogger seems to easily weed these out.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for reading and commenting. Yeah, that was the whole overly adapted thing I meant, there's such a thing as being too comfortable.

the anti robbot thing has caused me less spam, but may be more trouble than it's worth. Maybe a trial period is in order once I get regular aceess back. I think the problem stems from many of my frineds being robots.