'In Stitches' recounts doctor's rocky path to becoming a plastic surgeon

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By By Dr. Tony Youn

Tony Youn grew up up one of two Asian-American kids in a small town of near wall-to-wall whiteness. Too tall and too thin, he wore thick Coke-bottle glasses, braces, Hannibal Lecter headgear, and had a protruding jaw that one day began to grow, expanding Pinocchio-like, protruding to an unthinkable, monstrous size. After high school graduation, while other seniors partied at the shore or explored Europe, Youn lay strapped in an oral surgeon's chair as he broke his jaw, then reset it and wired it shut for six weeks. Ironically, it was this brutal makeover that led him to his life's calling — becoming a board-certified cosmetic surgeon. His new memoir "In Stitches" recounts his bumpy road to becoming a doctor. Here he writes about the first day of anatomy class in his first year of medical school. Read the excerpt:

Chapter 6:

I see dead people.

Eighteen bodies covered with plastic, lying on gurneys. An occasional toe protrudes to verify that beneath the shiny black tarp, a dead person lies.

I smell dead people, too.

Or at least the thick chemical stench of formaldehyde, tearing at my eyes and packing my nose, enough liquid preservative in here to float a yacht. The smell rises from the bodies and from a dozen large clear plastic bins — similar to the type you find at IKEA — lining the back wall of the lab, some stacked on top of each other. The bins contain body parts and organs, all of them cataloged, numbered, and labeled.

We sit at desks in an adjacent classroom, the eighteen bodies lurking behind us, lying in wait. In my lab coat I feel like Igor, the mad scientist’s assistant, but in reality I’m sitting in anatomy class, by reputation the most furiously intense class we will take in first year, maybe in all of medical school, especially since our section is taught by the infamous Dr. Gaw, the most ruthless, unforgiving professor who has ever lived. If you believe in reincarnation, Dr. Gaw has returned from her previous life as Attila the Hun in the form of an eighty-five-year-old nightmare who lives to terrorize us. She walks as erect as a pencil, her skeletal face a frozen fanged scowl resting atop one throbbing purple vein. According to our school catalog, Dr. Gaw has won awards, a trophy case full. To this day I can’t imagine how.

According to Billy, our go‑to second-year consultant, who hooked up with a first-year from another orientation group and is now all smiles and helpful when we see him, anatomy is even more of a bear than biochemistry, which, even though I aced it going away at Kalamazoo, is right now kicking my ass. I try to explain this to Shelly. I tell her that med-school biochem is a lot different than college biochem, and I’m happy to share my notes or study with her—my one final feeble attempt to get us alone, where we might resume rubbing our knees together in the hope of progressing upward—but she turns out to be not only a gunner but a first-class ass kisser as well, a lethal double threat, the kind of medical student who takes no prisoners, plays every angle, murders every exam, laughs at every teacher’s joke, lives for extra credit, hangs out with professors before and after class, and along with a cabal of other gunners and ass kissers, scores invitations to their homes for brunches and barbecues and even gets hired to babysit their children. I give up on Shelly. She’s not my type. My type defined as any woman showing a vague interest in me. At our first class, Dr. Gaw hands out equipment, including latex gloves, goggles, and what I really want, nose plugs, which I stuff into my nostrils, hoping to at least partially deflect the stench. The nose plugs don’t help, so except for gloves, I go commando. I figure I might as well get used to the smell. I’ll have to, if I ever do become a real doctor. Most of the other first-years wear as much protective covering as possible. One guy, a gunner, shows up on the second day of anatomy wearing a hazmat suit. The whole ball and tackle. Goggles and ventilation mask. Dr. Gaw says nothing, but I think I see her scowl flutter, and I imagine her dropping Hazmat’s grade.

Tim and I scramble to find seats together. Tim, I’ve learned by now, has exactly zero mechanical aptitude. A week into medical school, we’ve eliminated the possibility that he will ever become a surgeon. He struggles to pull on his gloves. This first day, I face him and yank them on for him. Once they’re secure, I turn back and find Dr. Gaw standing over me. She reeks of formaldehyde. She holds a moist body part in one bony gloved hand.

“Dr. Youn.”

How the hell does she know my name?

“Yes, Dr. Gaw?”

“Which valve of the heart am I holding?”

Am I glad she said heart. I thought she was holding a liver. I take a shot. “Mitral valve?”

“Congratulations.” Do I detect a trace of a Nazi accent? “This is the aortic valve.” She spits the words at me. “You have the deductive ability of a monkey. I pity your future patients, Dr. Youn.”

She limps away.

Tim whispers, “If it makes you feel any better, I thought it was the small intestine.”

Dr. Gaw suddenly materializes in front of Tim. Where did she come from? It’s as if she stepped out of a fog.

“Do you have something to add to the class, Dr. O’Laughlin?”

“Me? No. Not at all. Not at the moment.”

“I assumed as much. If you have any reasonable hope of passing this class, I would suggest that you and Dr. Youn refrain from talking and joking and making fools of yourselves. Oh, and a helpful suggestion.

As doctors, you will find it useful if you can distinguish the heart from the small intestine.”

I’m shaken. I’ve never found myself in such unfamiliar territory.

Academically — from elementary school through college — I have always excelled. I’m the school scholar, the student hotshot, the freaking valedictorian. Within seconds, Dr. Gaw has trashed all that. To her, I’m the class idiot.

I’m left with two choices. I can shrink away. Or I can bounce back.

It takes me two seconds to decide.

I am going to dominate anatomy.

Starting tomorrow.

Today I’d like to disappear.

Moments later, with Dr. Gaw in the lead, we tour the anatomy lab, gunners and ass kissers fanning around her like a rock star’s entourage.

The rest of us hang back. I stay as far away from her as I can. We stop first at the gurneys.

“As you may have heard, most medical schools assign a specific cadaver to a small group of students, and they spend their entire first year dissecting and learning its anatomy. Often they form a peculiar attachment to their cadavers, even giving it a name. Bob. Heidi. Adolph.”

She pauses suddenly. Her bottom lip quivers. Perhaps she’s lost her train of thought. Or perhaps, hopefully, she’s having a stroke.

“We don’t do that. The bodies here have been prosected. Which means, Dr. Youn, that they have been dissected in advance by faculty and students in the elective dissection course.”

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She seems fine. Damn it.

“These bodies are intact so that we can study the head, neck, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and so forth together.”

She whips the tarp off one body, leaving the head covered. The abdomen is exposed, and all the nerves and blood vessels have been tagged by blue index cards with names and arrows pointing to internal structures.

“That is such a clever method,” Shelly says.

“I agree,” Dr. Gaw says. “Especially since I devised it.”

I’m positive Shelly didn’t pull that out of her ass. She must have researched Dr. Gaw in order to have this information locked and loaded.

“Of course, it was some years ago. But there has never been any reason to change.”

“If it’s not broken, why fix it?”

“Indeed, Dr. Burkhart.”

She beams at Shelly. Shelly flashes back a We are so connected, after this let’s go for manis and pedis smile. She’s good. I can’t stand her.

“Our gross-anatomy course will cover the entire human body, one system at a time. We will study the head and neck in one of the last sections, so for most of the course, the bodies will be displayed with their faces covered. For the next three weeks, we will study the abdomen and all its vital organs. Questions?”

Why does she look at me? I brace myself. Here it comes. Another sarcastic crack establishing once again that I am the class dunce.

“Good.”

I’m spared.

“Each body part that I point out to you today will be on your lab practical exam in three weeks.”

An undercurrent sweeps through the room. Gunners whip out notebooks. Scribbling commences. The word exam gets my attention, too. I decide to change position. I step forward to get a closer look. I move casually, furtively, outside Dr. Gaw’s line of vision. In fact, I walk behind her.

“Dr. Youn, you’ve decided to join us. Astonishing.”

Eyes in the back of her head. It’s official. She’s a ghoul.

Dr. Gaw, her back to us, gunners practically Velcroed to her, approaches the plastic bins at the far end of the lab. She taps the first container with a bony finger. “Inside these containers, you will find individual body parts for you to examine. This one” — she passes her palm over the top — “contains hearts. The one next to it contains livers.

The next one, kidneys. And so on. Each container has a label stating which parts belong in it. If you take a body part out, please be sure to put it back and into the correct bin.”

She whirls on us, a bony finger extended like a witch’s wand. “Do not even consider taking a body part home with you. That will be grounds for expulsion.”

I expect Dr. Gaw to warn me by name here. Hell, I expect her to frisk me to see if I’ve sneaked a kidney under my shirt. Instead she settles for a hairy-eyeball stare. It’s enough to make me perspire.

“Take a few moments now and familiarize yourself with the various bins. And then we will begin our study of the abdomen.”

She lays the word out—ab-do-men—as if it’s part of a satanic feminist curse.

I start for the bin farthest from the gunners, stop, retrieve Tim. He waves me away. He looks a little under the weather.

“Let’s check out the lungs, maybe toss around a liver.” I grab Tim’s elbow, attempt to steer him toward a bin in the back. “Body parts. Organs. This stuff fascinates me.”

“You go. Enjoy.” He leans over, steadies himself against a desk. His complexion darkens, turns green, the color of a fairway.

“You all right?”

“Never better. Have I mentioned that I’m a tad squeamish?”

“You’re a klutz, you’re squeamish, and Dr. Gaw hates me. We have this class wired.”

“Score.”

“You want some water?”

“No, I’ll just puke and pass out and I’ll be fine.”

He lowers himself, head aimed down, lands with a thud at a desk. He rummages through his backpack, pulls out a towel, and presses it against his head. He smiles sickly. “You might want to move back in case I go projectile.”

I give him a thumbs-up and peel out toward the plastic bins at the back of the lab. I find myself walking in the gunners’ wake.

“I heard that last year someone stole a spleen, took it home to study,” an ass kisser whispers to Shelly. “Smuggled it out in her backpack. Never got caught. Aced the exam.”

“That rocks,” Shelly says, wheels turning.

That rocks? These people are insane.

I veer off on my own, start with the bin marked liver. I move on to heart and lungs. I cruise from bin to bin, taking mental inventory of the contents. That bin, number three. Packed with hearts swimming in formaldehyde. The next one, lungs. Filled to the top. The one after that, overflowing with livers. Then it hits me. These are human organs. They belonged to actual people. People who cared enough about helping others to donate their organs so I — all of us — could learn to be a doctor.

I stop at the last bin against the wall.

It’s open.

I look down and see a pile of severed hands.

Dozens of hands.

Floating in a pool of preservative.

I look at these hands, the hands of strangers, hands that appear to be reaching out to each other.

I stare at these hands. I feel suddenly as if I’m somehow invading these people’s lives. I feel like an intruder. I did not expect this. I suspected that I would have a strong reaction when we study faces.

I’m afraid that I will become too attached, too emotional. Doctors need to be detached, right? Impersonal. What is more personal than our face?

Our hands.

We use our hands for everything — to touch, to write, to build, to play, to cook, to clean, to feed, to feel, to guide, to caress, to love. Our hands serve us as extensions of our minds and our hearts.

I look at these floating hands, at the fingers, the fingernails, the bones, the knuckles, and I picture them as the hands of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, best friends, loved ones, the hands of people who once had thoughts, opinions, hopes, and dreams. These are anyone’s hands. These are everyone’s hands. They could be my hands.

I feel myself drifting off. I’m no longer here. I’m no longer in this classroom and anatomy lab. I’ve entered a different state of mind. I feel small and mortal and humbled and grateful. Deeply grateful.

And I feel that I have been given a gift and that I have a mission and a responsibility. I feel obligated to the people who gave us their hands. I lift my head from the bin of hands. Across the room, Dr. Gaw’s piercing purple eyes puncture my gaze. For the first time I don’t care about her. I don’t care what she thinks or what she says. I don’t care if she doesn’t like me and never will. I don’t care about her at all.

Then something happens that I never could have predicted or imagined.

The old witch smiles.

From “In Stitches: A Memoir” by Dr. Tony Youn. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.