Friday, March 18, 2016

20 years

About a week after my Dad's death, I had my med school 20th reunion. I'd already bought tickets, and Mrs. Grumpy insisted I go. A while back I wrote about my thoughts on it.

I flew in, got a rental car, checked into my hotel, and went over to campus. I left here 20 years ago, the day after graduation, and haven't been back since.

This was the view from my hotel. The alumni travel rep lied about it being a nice neighborhood.

"It's overlooking a grassy park."

The control panel for the elevator didn't exactly inspire confidence, either:

It was very strange. I arrived in the evening and went over to campus to walk around.

The classrooms were empty. I stood in the cavernous room where I'd been a first year medical student, failed the first anatomy test, and somehow pulled out a passing grade when it was over. I walked through the lounge where my friend Bryan had, I swear, used the microwave to heat up a squirrel he'd shot in his yard (he was from Wyoming) for lunch. The anatomy lab was now locked up with a security code, a precaution that hadn't been necessary 20 years ago.

The next day I spent more time re-discovering the campus.

When I checked in they gave me an ID tag, held to my shirt by a magnet. The warning on the back was in tiny letters, and most people likely wouldn't have noticed it until it was too late.

"Why am I suddenly so lightheaded?"

I entered the library, marveling at how much it still looked the same. Of course, now there were computers and iPads everywhere, but still the same big study tables I'd once memorized the Krebs cycle at. The same broken toilet in the basement bathroom, that likely has been plugged since I was last here.

My steps took me to the gym, where I stared down at the track and remembered a younger version of me who somehow found the time to run 5 miles a day and weighed 75 pounds less. What the hell happened to him?

They'd given me a bright red bag at check-in that said "ALUMNI" on one side, with a bunch of guides and requests for money in it. "Help us build the new administrative retreat chateau in the Alps."

My first impulse was to hide the red "ALUMNI" bag under my jacket, because carrying it openly would make me stand out.

Then I realized that I DO stand out. I mean, this is a small university campus, full of bustling 18-25 somethings. I'm a paunchy, balding, 50-something guy, and the bag doesn't matter. Hell, it probably keeps me from being arrested arrested for trespassing.

I quietly wandered through the meditation garden behind the old church. I'd spent a lot of time here, walking over when I needed a break. My favorite bench was still there, and as I sat on it again I thought of all the times I'd been there trying to find the will to go back and study, to not quit and fly home..., to just go on. Somehow I'd made it, and am still not sure how.

I stopped in front of a statue from 1920, placed there to give thanks for those who'd been spared the twin horrors of WWI and the flu pandemic, and to remember those who hadn't. Hard to believe that at that point it was believed WWI would be the final limit on man's inhumanity to man, while time would go on to prove it wasn't even close.

I walked across the street to my old apartment complex, and stared up at the place I'd lived in for 4 years while becoming a doctor. I'd grown up a lot emotionally in there. I thought of my roommate, Enzyme, and the crazy couple next door. And the night we sabotaged them.

Back then it had been rough in a lot of ways. I'd never left my hometown before, and in the mid-80's was moving halfway across the continent to go to medical school. Dad and I loaded up a big U-Haul and made the 3-day drive here. He'd paid for my apartment. I drove by places where he and I had once gone, and I wanted to send him a picture to show what it looked like now. And had the sickening realization that I can't anymore.

Some of the events of alumni weekend were comical. They included a pub crawl. I don't know about other people, but, at 20 years out from medical school, my ability to consume and handle alcohol isn't what it once was. When I last saw the sign-in sheet it only had one name on it (brave soul).

When I'd graduated, the front hallway of the med school had a huge display of posters, showing the pictures and names of every graduating class going back over a hundred years. As med students we'd look at the spot where our class would be featured... someday. I'd moved away before they put it up, so one of the things I'd really wanted to do was finally see my picture up in the hallway.

So I went into the hallway... and the display was gone. Of course, no one who works there now has any recollection of a display EVER being there. One told me she'd once heard a rumor about it, and that the posters might be in storage somewhere with a plan being to turn them into a digital display at some point (presumably before the sun becomes a red giant)... But I didn't get to see my picture up.

I took the tour of my medical school later that day. It included the dreaded anatomy lab, which still smells like it did when I was there, and likely as it did since the first time classes were held there (anyone who went to medical school knows, and hates, the "anatomy lab smell." It never comes out in the laundry).

The medical students now have THEIR OWN EXERCISE ROOM, with machines and everything, attached to the med school. Kids today. When I was their age, I had to walk to the school gym, through snow, uphill both ways.

Going through the student resource rooms it was good to see the school was still as technologically cutting edge now as it was then. I was told these gadgets are still in frequent use:

WTF do you get the plastic sheets? Or still using the same ones?

"We keep these around to get alumni donations."

On the night of the reunion party I took the elevator up to the 4th floor, and an elderly couple got in with me. She clearly had Parkinson's disease. Her husband was frail and old, stooped over a cane. I suddenly realized he'd been one of the key internal medicine attendings when I was there, the brilliant physician-sleuth we all dreamed of being. We were all both terrified and in awe of him, and here he was, looking so much smaller than I ever remembered. I introduced myself, and thanked him for all he'd done to help make me a doctor. Then I held the door for them when we got to the stop for his class's gathering.

The actual reunion, was, as these things are, interesting. It was good to see my classmates again, and see where life had taken them. All are still in practice, scattered across the country like pins on a map. I've never been a particularly outgoing person, but was happy to chat with my old classmates for a few hours. The tables in the back were taken up by their spouses, who looked horribly bored. I'm glad Mrs. Grumpy decided to stay home.

It's hard to believe that, when we first met, we were all young and, for the most part, really believed in what we were doing. Medicine was a religion, a calling, at the time. To some extent I think we still believe in what we do, but 20 years of fighting insurance companies, narcotic seekers, sleepless weekends on call, 70-80 hour weeks, diminishing reimbursements, bogus disability claims, and living in fear of malpractice suits will dim the fire. But they're all still good people, and it was nice to find we still care. We're different, with varying religious and political beliefs, but we still have more in common than not. Unlike government officials it was easy to discuss such things respectfully and without animosity, and still like each other.

At some point in the evening, as it got late, something told me it was time to leave. I don't know what it was. Whatever I'd been looking for by coming back here... I'd found it. Not being a person who does goodbyes well, I didn't say any. I set my drink down on a table and quietly slipped away. I had no regrets.

I walked back to my rental car across the darkened campus. It was a nice evening. I passed the occasional student heading to the library or gym. The groups sitting under trees talking. The young lovers holding hands. I liked it here, but it wasn't my place anymore. That was 1000 miles away, and I had a plane flight in the early morning.


Renee said...

A close friend of mine died of cancer a few years ago. I hadn't been in touch with him in the year leading up to his death, and so found out through mutual friends. It was a great shock and led to a long period of reflection in which I constantly thought of him and remembered times we'd shared together.

One of my favorite memories of him was after we'd returned from a canoeing trip that got rained out, and we both went to his house and sat by the fire drying out and talking.

Last fall I was going for an evening walk around my neighborhood. It was starting to get chilly and dark, and just as my thoughts turned to my dear friend, I smelled a fire burning in someone's fireplace. The first fire of the season and it instantly transported me to his side.

There was something about that moment that really started the healing process for me. I think it must be kind of like the experience you had, when you just knew it was time to leave, or like you wrote yesterday when the long-silent cable-car played its music. It is like a sign from the universe that it is OK to move on.

You know you will always remember the ones you love. Though the pain of their absence never really goes away, the fire of their lives will always burn.

Packer said...

Deep, and I am not talking about the foot of snow that will fall on NJ on Sunday night. Beautiful, Renee.... and I am not talking about the foot of snow that will fall on NJ on Sunday night.
Be Well

J said...

Very nice soliloquy to times long past. I especially liked the last two paragraphs; absolutely beautiful.

HeroHog said...

Doc, your dad was with you and saw it all through your eyes.

Crazy RxMan said...

So when I saw the first couple of pictures I was convinced that this was your way of telling the public that you received your degree from a third world country.

Anonymous said...

While you were reminiscing I had a dim, sort of grayish memory of all the higher educational institutions that I passed through, and the picture I had of myself walking up the stairs to the third floor with the bright Wyoming sunlight streaming through the windows to the pharmacology lab with my father. He was nodding, and I imagined him saying, while he was asking some inconsequential comment, that he was proud as a schoolteacher, and proud as a parent.

Anonymous said...

Next year is our 30 year medical school reunion - yikes! I have known my best mates from university for 34 years - yikes! Our alumni include eminent researchers, Professors & those who have been given an enforced holiday by the medical board - yikes!
So many memories of the days when we were young, naive, foolhardy... and when we get back together, we regress immediately to the early 80s - yikes!

Unknown said...

You can't go back doc, so I have never tried. Pharmacy school ended 36 years ago. I have walked campus a few times over the years, but no reunions for me.

Anonymous said...

Stop making me cry with your beautiful, incisive writing. (I mean- don't, really- but you know.)

lost lenore said...

Two memories from anatomy lab- At dinner my kids asked what was on my glasses I said "oh I guess it's cadaver fat". They didn't finish the meal. My college freshman daughter wrote a poem about her mother no longer cutting up dead bodies but just watching. She never mentioned that I was in med school.

lotta joy said...

As years mount up behind us, it is tragic to realize we are NOT the person we used to be, and thought at the time we'd always be. Instead of a future open with possibilities, we age the moment we try to go back in time and realize we came, we saw, we learned, and paid the price.

ASM826 said...

Re: the overhead projectors

You can still buy new acetate sheets from all the major office supply places. You can also print your documents and PowerPoints onto those sheets to project onto the screen.

Anonymous said...

Very beautiful, but I don't do reunions in any shape or form.

pharmacy chick said...

I did a reunion a few years ago. my 30th class reunion. Why...I have no idea..stupid idea... I decided to never attend another reunion event ever. The same alliances, the same misfits, the same reasons I fled the school in the first place. For some whose memories are fond a reunion is a great way to roll back time. for others its just scratching old wounds open. Your piece was beautifully written, but an excellent reminder for me to not consider any more matter what.

Kinjal Banerjee said...

Your writing touched the soul, Dr. Grumpy. As someone who's out of med school for 5 years now, and 7000 miles away (on a different continent), your words are exactly what I feel, or will feel some years from now. Things change, but the more they do, the more they remind you of what once was. Med school days were by no means the happiest of my life, but there are still a lot of memories to go back to, from the ever-present smell of Anatomy, to memories of my now-ex girlfriend, to running around floors in scrubs, there is always a lot to remember. Reading this brought all of it rushing back.

Thank you! Beautiful piece!

Anonymous said...

Did the Yak Herding classes take place at FFA a few miles west of here? Was that a U-Matic video cassette player? Best wishes to you, your practice staff, and the Grumpy clan!!

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