Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Tales out of medical school

Charles H. Halsted
Davis, California, USA


University of Rochester School of Medicine, 1958

In first-year anatomy class, I shared a rectangular metal table with three other twenty-one-year-old men and our assigned corpse, a blank-eyed, obese, and lifeless white seventyish woman. Half of my classmates were former Eastern prep school boys, the others mostly Jewish men from New York City. There were two women and two black men, one of them Ghanaian. I was the only one from west of the Mississippi.

Midway through, the Jewish guy next table over became unhinged, wondering if strips of skin from his assigned corpse could have been used to make Nazi lampshades at Auschwitz, only fifteen years before. He calmed down, later became a respected academic physician.

Two white privileged former preppy guys thought it would be fun to terrorize our Ghanaian classmate. They came in the night and moved his assigned corpse to the floor. One crawled under the cover, groaned loudly when their classmate arrived. They achieved their aim, were never found out or expelled. The Ghanaian dropped out, went home at the end of the year.

During my third-year surgery rotation, I was lowest on the totem pole for surgical removal of a middle-aged woman’s cancerous breast. I held the incision retractor for Doctor God, the surgeon in charge. Though God was highly respected within the city, the nurses knew He was actively drinking, clearly hung over, hands uncontrollably shaking. Halfway through, God’s wobbling scalpel nicked open my retractor-holding thumb. Nothing was said by the resident doctors or nurses. I changed my surgical glove, carried on, and nothing else was ever done. For years, I worried that God had anointed me with transplanted breast cancer cells.

When I related this story at our fiftieth-year reunion, the two former preppies who had terrorized the Ghanaian, each now a respected community physician, told our former classmates that God was revered by his peers, now retired—there was no way this event could ever have happened.



CHARLES H. HALSTED, MD, is a retired Professor Emeritus of internal medicine. His education includes BA Stanford University (1958), medical school at the University of Rochester School of Medicine (1962), internship and residency at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital (1962-66), and gastroenterology fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital (1968-70). He taught and practiced at the University of California Davis from 1974 until his retirement in 2016. His formal poetry education consists of eight consecutive on-line courses from the Stanford Continuing Studies program. His published medical poetry appears in Blood and Thunder, Chest, Medical Literary Messenger, Sisyphus, Snapdragon, and Hektoen International.


Summer 2018  |  Sections  |  Education

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