Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Odd Job

I was talking to one of my colleagues at work yesterday and we were swapping stories of odd jobs that we've had to do at work. Although many might think that laboratory life if very dull and predictable, scientists have to deal with just as much random oddities in their daily work lives as much as the next person. My colleague related to me a story of how when she was a resident doing surgery research a lab member of hers didn't properly anesthetize a rabbit he was operating on. The animal awoke during surgery and her lab mate ran out of the procedure room befuddled and in terror. She was left to capture the rabbit that had begun to move around while still cut open from surgery before it spilt itself all over the procedure room. I then remembered a task that I had to do that is, to this day, the most bizarre and macabre job I have ever been asked to do.

I was working in the department of plastic surgery at a medical center here in Dallas. I was hired to do molecular biology research on wound healing but the department wasn't quite ready to embark on such basic science and I was by and large the cabana boy that the research nurses and secretaries called when they needed something lifted or retrieved from shelves above their voluminous hair.

One day I got a call from the research nurse telling me that I had to come upstairs to help her dispose of some biohazard waste. I wasn't busy and was downright giddy to be doing something so I reported with alacrity. So far nothing was out of the ordinary. Biohazard waste typically means sharps containers or spent media used to culture cells, no problem. I arrived in the plastic surgery research lab and the nurse tells me "You need to take the old heads in the freezer down to the anatomy lab to be cremated. They're old and I need to order some new ones." I paused for a moment and attempted to process what I had just heard. I figured since I was new that this was a joke and any minute now someone was going to start snickering. The nurse didn't snicker, stutter or flinch as she opened the freezer door and pulled out three plastic bags each occupied by something roughly the volume of a human head.

She then told me that we should probably put the heads into new bags for transport since the ones they occupied already were kind of old. I put on some gloves and lab coat to cover my arms past where the gloves stopped and held open each of the the three new bags as she casually transferred the three heads used by the residents to practice face lifts on into their new containers. I got a good look at each of their faces as they went into the new bags and the repeated surgeries didn't seem to help any one of their appearances.

I loaded the heads onto a cart and covered them with a sheet. My next task was to transport the heads across campus to the anatomy lab where they would be prepared for cremation. I wheeled the cart down each hallway being mindful of every bump and every opportunity inertia took to steal one of my packages. What I did not need was to have a head fall off the cart and roll to the feet of a visiting patient in the hospital.

I reached the anatomy lab in the basement of one of the research buildings. They knew I was coming down and I waved through the small square window in one of the doors to a tall albino man at the end of a long corridor and he let me in. I pushed the cart down the corridor which was lined with various plastinated cross sections of the human body trapped in clear lucite blocks. The day was only getting weirder.

The tall albino man had gone into another room while I was making my way down the hall gawking at the cross sections. When I reached the end of the corridor he emerged from a room on the left that was obviously the necropsy room. Upon seeing him I realized that he was, by appearance, the perfect person to be working in an anatomy lab. His skin could, like the skin of the countless corpses he tended to, could not afford much exposure to the sunlight. The basement was an ideal workplace for this individual. At this point I thought I would just hand off my packages to him and be on my way but he asked me to follow him into the necropsy room. I followed him into the room in which there was a corpse, still in his hospital gown, socks and all, laying on a stainless steel gurney. "That one just came down a few hours ago," he said. At that point I was trying my best not to pass out and nodded my head and smiled as if to say "Yes. Very good. He'll do very nicely." He continued as if he had heard my unspoken reply, "He was just old but fit as a fiddle. Thats how they like them for anatomy lab." I looked at the man for what seemed like an eternity but was really just a couple of moments. But in those few moments I had realized my own mortality and was oddly at peace with the fact that I would someday be just like him, dead.

I snapped out of my epiphany and began to feel more light headed and nauseous as a result of the embalming fumes permeating the room. The albino led me to one side of the room where a cardboard box with the dimensions of a coffin was on top of another gurney. He pulled off the lid of the box to reveal a myriad of other loose body parts used for various research and educational reasons. I don't remember specifically what was in the box but I do remember seeing a very large, fat leg stretching a good length of the box.

"Load em in," he said. I began to drop a bagged head into the box at which point he stopped me and said, "Oh no plastic in here. You need to take them out of the bags." I reluctantly followed his orders as I let each globe slide out of its plastic bag and thud into the box with its eternal companions. I couldn't bear to look into the box and wondered if the conscious minds of the people who once owned these body parts had known or even fathomed how they would end up. He covered the box and then wheeled it past a threshold into another room that contained shelves, stacked four high, of cardboard boxes awaiting cremation, each one containing a melange de corps.

I asked the albino what happens to the ashes. He told me that they are placed into a memorial garden on the campus that honors those who dedicate their bodies to science. Oddly enough that was the most cheerful thing I'd heard all day. I gathered my sheet used to cover my parcels and disposed of the bags. Without further delay I wheeled my cart out of the necropsy lab down the long corridor, exited through the double doors and reentered the land of the living this time not paying any attention to the plastinated artwork on the long gallery walls. I had had enough morbidity and reminders of my own mortality for one day.

I arrived back at the plastic surgery lab and the nurse asked me if there were any problems. I told her it all went well and that they were expecting me. She smiled and thanked me for disposing of the waste. As I turned to leave I glanced down at her desk and saw a post-it note on her desk calendar, "Order New Heads."

It was the weirdest day of work I have ever had.


Blogger Spider said...

Yea - tops any of mine by a LONG shot!

8:12 AM  
Blogger Seeker Onos said...

Aye same here.

I suppose it made "getting some head" take on a whole new meaning for ye.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Earl Cootie said...

Wow. That is David Lynch weird.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Donnie said...

Oy, you are a much stronger person than I am. The instant I realized they were heads, I would've been outta there!

11:48 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

That is definitely more than just odd, lol.

Add some Spanish and Antonio Banderas and you could have a great Pedro Almadovar film :)

1:40 PM  
Blogger jjd said...

awesome story, times like that you wish you had a disposable camera i'm sure!

3:24 PM  
Blogger Darin said...

oh good christ.

4:15 PM  
Blogger tornwordo said...

Wow, that was macabre. All Tim Burton-y with the albino. It seems that you have evoked a variety of directors with your tale. Cool.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

In other words, you were in a morgue with an albino and a bunch of bags of human heads? What could be strange about that? Heh. Eek!

6:30 PM  
Blogger Sunshine said...

I happened to be eating lunch when I read this. I had to stop. Thanks Adam!! :P

9:32 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

That was disturbing and creepy in ways I never thought possible. Bleh.

Well, on the other hand, it's noble that people dedicated their body parts to science, and nice to know they are disposed of in a very respectful way.

I guess somebody has to do it.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, u r brave.

2:52 PM  

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