Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On the Cusp of Winter

Time has really flown by since my previous post. I think the thought of the approaching Thanksgiving holiday was what carried me through, but now that the long weekend has passed, the reality of final exams has finally dawned. I guess there's the resting period of winter break to look forward to! Thanksgiving break was a bit of a tease - I got to go home from late Wednesday night until Saturday morning only. I spent two days in California, and it was so, so sweet. I felt so spoiled and taken care of - what a luxury! I'm only half-joking when I say I'm not coming back!

I'm now typing this as a newly-minted 24-year-old. My birthday was on Thanksgiving Day this year, and was drama-free, thankfully! I'm glad life gets better and better as the years pass. That's a good sign, no?

My family, friends, and acquaintances were a bit shocked at the amount of weight I'd lost over the course of the time I'd been in New York. It's more than I lost from my episode of India-induced food poisoning.

Speaking of India, I think of my time there fondly and often and really am longing to be back. I'm reading other Ashtangis' blogs about their experiences in Mysore and wish I could go too. In the mean time, I'm happy I'm in a city with such a huge and passionate and legendary Ashtanga community. It's keeping me sane!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tough Enough

We are now on the last leg of the anatomy course, pun not intended. Today was the grand unveiling of the face, which for the past months has been shrouded in a white cloth cover underneath a black plastic bag. During the course of the semester, I'd frequently glanced at the head region and wondered what my response to finally seeing the head and neck would be. Would I run out of the room screaming? Or burst into tears? Leave and never come back?

I know that my classmates have at times dreamed about or felt emotional regarding anatomy, but it seems like it's something we keep under wraps, that we discuss with our closer friends in medical school. In lab, it's more about scavenging around for the correct muscles, digging for arteries, and treasure-hunting for those elusive and easily-severed nerves. We focus our energies on getting the task at hand done, and there's seldom space for reflection during laboratory sessions.

I entered the semester keenly aware of every cut I was making, every chunk of flesh removed, and every moment consciously aware that I am dissecting a fellow human being. Now towards the end of the semester, I don't feel that I'm less aware of what I'm doing, but somehow there's a sense of "getting used to it," such that I'm not creeped out or mortified any longer. Being splattered by fat or inhaling the fumes of embalming fluid hardly faze me anymore. I remember my group on the first day - how tentatively we made our first cut into the back! How we wore masks to prevent the splatter from hitting our face or even worse, getting into our mouths (God forbid)!

So how was it, seeing the face of our cadaver for the first time? I can say that it did not perturb me in either way. I glanced around the room at the other cadavers, and one of my groupmates summed it up well, "At least she looks...peaceful." Seeing her face humanizes everything a bit more, but at the same time, after going through all this, I feel like the body is merely just that. After death, it is just a shell or covering. What animates it and makes it that person is no longer there. Though today's not my turn to dissect, I'm glad I suited up and went in for the beginning anyway. The skin of the face will be removed by my groupmates, and on Thursday (when I do need to be there to dissect), the face will no longer be what it was. I'm glad I got to pay this last respect to my cadaver, since the face is the most "human" part of what's left of her now, and even that will be gone soon. It's been a whirlwind journey in many ways, and it's definitely not over yet - I know the cranial nerves, the myriad orifices and foramina of the skull, all await me - but it's good to pause here and be thankful for what I've learned and seen thus far.

As I left lab today, I saw a few of my classmates standing outside in tears, having had emotional reactions to what we've just witnessed. It's a moment of reflection for us all. I've already had my first teary moment in front of a professor and fellow students last week, and perhaps this is just the beginning. I think we'll be getting used to supporting each other and seeing each others' vulnerabilities as the years progress. But it's better this way. The worst thing to do would be to bury or repress these emotions.

Growing up, tears were always viewed as a huge sign of weakness in my family. When being lectured by a stern parent, the way to surely tick them off further would be to burst into tears. But over the years, I've come to acknowledge that tears have nothing to do with how "tough" or "strong" someone is. They're merely a sign or expression of emotion, and perhaps the only link to toughness/strength is whether one has the will or desire to keep them in or let them out. In light of the death that I seem to encounter now on a regular weekly, if not daily, basis, and in light of the death-encountering aspects of the profession that I have chosen, strength is not measured by how stoic and unemotional one can be.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Butternut Squash Success!

I bought a butternut squash yesterday, and was pondering what to do with it. It was sitting in my fridge, looking a bit large and ominous. Well, after polling some classmates in the elevator, I decided to peel and chop up the thing, add some salt, pepper, and olive oil, and roast it in the oven.

And it was amazing! You know it is when you offer some to your roommates and they ask if they can have more. One of my roommates had seen me wrestling with the peeler and wielding a knife, trying to cut the squash into more manageable fry-shaped pieces. We spent a few moments marveling at how much the squash had shrunk in the oven, before devouring all of it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

We Are But Human

I found out today that my first patient passed away on Sunday. It was to meet this patient that I first put on my new, starched white coat, walked into the halls and wards of the hospital unquestioned, and had the privilege of asking all sorts of personal and private questions in order to write up my patient's detailed life history. He was only a few years older than me.

What struck me most was how full of life and hope my patient had been. In our modern day and age, living a normal life despite having HIV is something we take for granted. Almost. At least at the pharmaceutical company where I worked - the company where the "miracle" cocktail formula for HIV antiretrovirals was basically developed - all of us knew that there's no reason to die from HIV anymore. That is, if you had the medical care necessary, there's no reason to die.

An excerpt from the life history I wrote up - this was what ended up bringing me to tears when Mr. W's doctor mentioned this: When asked about the future, Mr. W says he wants to get out of the hospital, finish of school, and live a long and healthy life. He repeatedly mentions that he wants to live a long and healthy life, and perhaps get involved with HIV education.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Holidays Have Arrived!

Esther and I just wrapped our respective midterm frenzies, and headed out tonight to actually enjoy "the capital of the world" that we live in. It was lovely to take in the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, filled with carefree tourists and happy families. We wandered over to Bryant Park, where the lawn has been converted into a giant ice rink that was much more crowded than the one at the Rock. We hypothesize that it must be exorbitant rates at the Rockefeller Center rink that probably drove everyone over to Bryant Park. In the mean time, we browsed through the holiday shops surrounding Bryant Park and came upon a stall selling Max Brenner's chocolate treats! A worker at the shop gave us samples of caramelized pecans coated in chocolate - simply divine. I haven't had chocolate in a while (this was the first year I didn't manage to taste any Halloween candy - no Twix, no Kit-Kat, no nothing! Shocking.), so I'd forgotten how a such a small treat can be so utterly enjoyable. Esther debated between getting the "chocolate syringe" or the "O.M.G. Chocolate Chip Cookie." The shopkeepers said the syringe can be a bit too much chocolate, so she settled for a warm chocolate chip cookie. Nothing like a WARM chocolate chip cookie on a sub-50F night!

I loved seeing the Christmas ornaments out, the pumpkins for sale, the beginning of Christmas shopping... The holidays make the harsh winters on the East Coast more bearable, and even enjoyable (singing carols about white Christmases and sleigh rides just seemed a bit incongruous in sunny, mild California). I'm learning how to dress appropriately for the winter now - learning NOT to be fooled by a sunny day into thinking that it WON'T be cold outside - so perhaps I'll be able to find the fun of the holiday season here too!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why a Good Night's Sleep (and Walk) is a Cure-All

I walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn today. It's not as bad as it sounds - just crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and coming back. I also slept until 7:30am, which is considered "sleeping in," for me. I woke up feeling revived from the previous few weeks. Sleeping well is rather like how I feel after eating a satisfying meal, almost. I was dressed with a slight Halloween twist from the morning, since today's yoga practice was the annual "Halloween Mysore" session. It appears that the "genie" idea is very conducive to practicing in costume, since both my teacher and I were wearing "genie pants" (harem pants). She had a blue wig on though. I had a white OM scarf around my waist that I eventually tore off and flung to the side as the practice went on. My other teacher, however, came in a tutu and long-haired wig. When he was helping me with dropbacks today, it took three tries for me to stop cracking up so we could actually proceed. As I was practicing yoga today, I kept becoming aware of the various muscles of my legs and ligaments of my hip joints. I'd just spent the previous day poring over the numerous muscles and ligaments of the lower extremities, and the fruit of those hours was that now my mind would suddenly screech that my gastrocnemius muscle was cramping. Anyways, after practice, another student inquired how the pants worked out for me during practice. I replied that they were surprisingly comfortable, aside from garbha pindasana, where you have to thread your arms through your legs in full lotus, and I had a hard time pushing my hands through the extra yardage of fabric.

After practice, it was so nice and sunny outside that I couldn't return back to my study cell right away. I took the subway down to the Brooklyn Bridge and decided to do the touristy activity of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. I passed by clusters of tourists angling their way to the most picturesque view of the Manhattan skyscrapers. The Statue of Liberty shimmered in the distance and I casually stepped around (and into) foreigners' excited photography of the Manhattan skyline. Couples rode by on tandem bikes and small hordes of tourists dressed in peacoats, windbreakers, and jeans on rental bicycles narrowly missed running me over as I took a brisk walk to the other side of the bridge.

It was just too beautiful outside and I couldn't bear to descend into the bowels of the subway, so on a whim, I followed a sign pointing to Chinatown. I didn't have my phone with me, and wondered briefly whether I might get lost. Chinatown was perfect today. Not crowded yet. Lots of old ah-ma's out early for grocery-shopping, and groups of yuppie foodies scouting for the best hole-in-the-walls. I gravitated towards the $1 boxes of blackberries, and to my amazement, found guava for sale! It was hardly a "sale" though. $4/lb, but I still got two. I can hardly resist anything that reminds me of Taiwan, of home, or of good times in the past in general. I came across the "hot mini cakes" vendor ($1 for 15!) that my friend Jessie had introduced to me the first time I came to the NYC Chinatown, about half a year ago now. The smell of the Chinese bakeries, the sound of Mandarin and Cantonese, the sight of garish signs advertising feng shui, massage, fast food, and cheap decor. Sometimes you don't even know you miss your own culture until a blast of it hits you in the face, and the familiarity is so endearing.

The fall foliage is also currently displayed in glory. Usually, I have a panoramic view of Central Park from the window of my anatomy lab, right above the head of my cadaver. We'd missed a week of lab due to a big midterm the previous week, and when we came back, the leaves had all suddenly changed color. From a lush green, Central Park is now a diverse array of oranges, reds, greens, and yellows. The leaves are but clinging to the branches by a tenuous thread right now. I'm sure with the next rainstorm or bout of wind, everything will be knocked right off the trees. I must visit Central Park sometime before autumn passes by without me. It seems like we are but a hair-breadth away from winter. In the mean time, I'm still trying to figure out how to dress for cold weather. I did a better job last night keeping myself warm when I went to meet Esther in the Village, but upon returning to my apartment and seeing a gaggle of classmates, I was asked whether I'm a skier for Halloween. It is hard not to go overboard one way or the other. I'm still trying to find that balance.

Happy Halloween! And Halloween is always exciting for me because it is the coming of November, which means - Thanksgiving! And turning 24.