This story is by Phil Palmieri and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
From my earliest memory, I wanted to be a doctor, but I wrestled with my confidence. I wasn’t the best looking or the most athletic. Being sixth out of seven kids, I wasn’t even well liked. However, I could work hard and study, and I really wanted to help sick people. These attributes gained me entrance into medical school. I was starting my third year and would finally be seeing patients. However just thinking about my first rotation in Obstetrics and Gynecology made me hyperventilate. Other than working as an orderly in a nursing home, cleaning the rear ends of demented nonverbal residents, I had had little exposure to actual talking patients. My previous twenty years were spent in a classroom. The next eight weeks would be spent between the legs of screaming women with me thinking to myself “I have no business being here.”
My classmates seemed more aggressive and smarter than me. Early in the rotation we were assigned to the gynecology clinic. They unleashed us on a young woman with chlamydia. We rushed into an exam room where she was perched on an oblong exam table wearing nothing but a thin hospital gown. Like rabid reporters at a White House press conference, my classmates fired off questions “Do you have dysuria (painful urination)?” “Do you have dysmenorrhea (painful menses)?” Another called out “How about dyspareunia (painful intercourse)?” I shrank back. After this, I wondered, “would she ever have pareunia again?”
We were assigned to do the initial history and physical exams on the women having hysterectomies. I met my first patient in the pre-op area. She was a pleasant appearing, middle aged woman accompanied by her husband. I had to ask a thousand mind-numbing questions, do an exam and obtain her consent for the surgery. Finally finished, I asked in my most professional tone “Any questions?” She and her husband whispered to each other. Then she said “We think you look like Howie Mandel. Can you do me a favor and blow up a rubber glove over your head using just your nose?”
The highlight of the GYN rotation was a field trip to visit the high priest of ovarian cancer at Roswell Park. This was Gilda Radner’s doctor. He was an exacting man who demanded us medical student pilgrims wear gender appropriate dresses and skirts or jackets and ties. We entered a cramped exam room to find a ruddy woman with stringy black hair and a Harley Davidson tattoo on her inner thigh supine on an exam table. The interrogation began. Gilda’s doctor yelled at us “This woman has uterine cancer. What is the cause?!” The press corps was silent. In my head I thought “Smoking, no. 36 red food dye, motorcycle fumes…?” He bellowed “Estrogen! And where is estrogen made?!” More silence. In my head I continued “Ovaries, my shrinking testicles…?” Then he proceeded to slap her enormous belly which undulated like a waterbed and exclaimed “Fat!” We were mortified. The patient amused. She giggled, jiggling her waterbed belly some more.
In the evenings the medical students were assigned to the obstetrics ward. I was paired with a dour faced resident who perpetually looked as if she found her cat pooed on the dining room table. We had to share a cave-like call room with two nearly touching twin beds. I couldn’t sleep worried that she would hear my snoring or smell my sweaty feet and silent farts. Most nights we didn’t sleep. I was kept awake, assisting her with deliveries. I hated deliveries. While the mother pushed, I prayed. “Please God don’t let this baby come out looking like it belongs on the cover of a supermarket tabloid.”
We were given a list of hundreds of inane questions to ask the woman in labor. “Do you smoke? Drink? When was your last menses?” She would answer “No. No. Nine months ago, you moron.” Armed with my questions on a clipboard, I entered a room. A crazed woman with clenched buttocks and a hand holding the back of her gown together ran past me into the bathroom. She shouted “You! What are you doing here? Get the fuck out!” She was the aerobics instructor at my gym, and the nurse had just given her a fleet’s enema. She didn’t even look pregnant.
I was next called to the delivery of woman whose left leg was in a cast. She had missed the precautions against skiing in your eighth month. Acting as a stir up, I had to hold her broken leg while this petite golden haired, sweaty ski bunny pushed 50 pounds of plaster into my chest. We panted in synch until she squeezed out a baby, and I birthed a hernia.
During the last week of the rotation our instructor gathered us students in a room. She said, “This will be the toughest, most rewarding call night of the year to be on obstetrics at the county hospital. You won’t have your residents helping you. It is the evening before their board exams, and they will be given the night off. I need a brave, smart volunteer from you students to help the attending do the delivers.” No hands went up. I tried to stop myself. “What the fuck are you thinking?” I told myself, “No, no, no don’t do it! Stop you moron! You’re neither brave nor smart. Keep your goddamn hand down.” It was too late. As usual, I ignored myself. From the back of the wolf pack, I raised my arm.
An elderly obstetrician shuffled into the room. I was assigned to assist him that whole evening. He was gently guiding a pregnant teenager through her labor pains, instructing her when to bear down and push. Suddenly a gush of fluid poured from her, drenching the floor. The obstetrician slipped. He hit his head on the hard tile floor, knocking himself out. Like a rocket, the baby shot out of the birth canal, dangling from its umbilical cord. Stretched paper thin, the cord suspended the swaying newborn above the floor, bouncing up and down and from side to side as if he jumped from a bridge attached to a bungie cord. The young mother was screaming “Was that my baby? Did my baby just come out? Where’s my baby?” With trembling hands, I bent down and grabbed the wet swinging baby. Two nurses quickly clamped the cord and one handed me a pair of gleaming steel scissors. Cutting the cord, I handed the baby to the neonatal nurses. With a dry, quivering voice, I croaked “Congratulations, it’s a boy.”
By now the obstetrician had been helped up and was attending to the mother. We began the slow, laborious task of suturing her up. With her legs in the stir ups and draped by a sheet, she had missed the calamity. Her baby was healthy and in her arms. With the rush of excitement settling down, I had finally gained some confidence. “Look at me,” I thought to myself, “I just delivered a baby. Now could Howie Mandell or those rubes on St. Elsewhere do that? Maybe, just maybe I can pull off this doctor thing after all.” The obstetrician shook my hand and thanked me for my help. As I was leaving, I saw two nurses in the corner. I overheard one say to the other “Can you believe that cocky medical student pushed an attending out of the way during a delivery?!”