Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

The Magic Curtain

After the first day of medical school, my mother called to ask me how it went. Then she threw in a kicker:

“I have a small rash I want you to look at.”

What the heck did she think I learned in one day?

I now know is that she was giving me an early lesson in boundaries:

I had crossed some magical line into MD-land, where I’d be expected to answer any question and have an opinion on all parts of the body and all medications, herbal supplements, chemicals, diets, beauty products, and the latest studies written about in newspaper articles (people read actual newspapers back then).

No matter that I’d had one day of the Krebs cycle, and nothing to show for it. I was now an almost-doctor!

Persnickety guy that I am, I really got frustrated when my Mom sent her friends in my direction, too. “I’m not a doctor, I just play one on TV,” became my go-to line to deflect their unwanted medical questions.

Things changed even more dramatically when I started internship.

My first day on the wards, I took over the care of Mrs. Manganelli, an unfortunate woman in her midfifties afflicted with severe multiple sclerosis (MS). This is a disease that wreaks havoc with the connections between nerves, and nerves to muscles, making things we take for granted like swallowing, walking and breathing very difficult. It also affects “toileting.”

Mrs. Manganelli (not her real name) had been admitted for severe constipation. Her MS had made her intestines barely able to move food and the resultant waste products along their course. An x-ray confirmed that her colon was “FOS” (full of stool, or a less nice word we somtimes use).

My supervising resident and the patient’s nurse gave me a strange look, with big eyes and a smile I mistrusted, telling me that “disimpacting” was the intern’s job.

I was scared to admit that I didn’t know what disimpacting was, but their looks told me it wasn’t pleasant.

To hide my ignorance, I asked what “tools” I’d need for the job. The resident pointed his finger at me, and the nurse handed me a chux, those ubiquitous blue pads that are all over hospitals to place under patients and clean up messes.

Then I understood: I was going to be making and cleaning up a mess from poor Mrs. Manganelli.

“I don’t want to be a doctor,” I thought to myself, in response to this form of hazing. “This is going to be a long and awful year.”

Mrs. Manganelli, apparently used to being disimpacted because of her illness, rolled onto her side (with help) and assumed the position.

Using a gloved finger and lubricant, I found what we would technically call “copious amounts of soft brown stool in her rectal vault.”

Her disease meant she had nearly no sphincter tone, so once I was able to initiate the flow of poop out of her bottom, it started coming out on its own. Lots of it.

A heaping pile.

And as gross as this story is, there are a couple of interesting facts and lessons I took from it.

Mrs. Manganelli felt about a million times better after being disimpacted. It was really remarkable both to see how dramatic her improvement was, and that I’d had a direct hand (so to speak) in making her feel that way.

When my family wanted to hear about my first day of internship, I proudly related some of the details of what I’d been through, thinking they’d find it amusing, or at least fodder for some storytelling.

Their reactions told me that I’d crossed over. Never again would I be able to share unfiltered details from my world. They couldn’t handle the truth.

So now, for better and worse, I live behind a magic curtain of people’s expectations and perceptions.

Like Mr. Gorbachev, I hope to tear down this wall.


  1. Justine

    It was just too funny that there were “no comments,” so I’m sending some appreciation for your engrossing writing.

    • glasshospital

      Hey-always appreciate an ice breaker in the comments section. Keep ’em coming!

  2. pathdoc

    So true!!!!! My family couldn’t handle ‘their little girl’ doing all those GROSS things during medical school and residency.

    Last week, a relative wanted to know if I knew the details of a particular cancer protocol in which her brother is enrolled (he lives in Europe). The fact I don’t practice oncology never even was an issue. I asked how far the cancer had spread. She had no clue. Only that this chemo might let him live longer.

    • glasshospital

      I’m glad you can relate.

      Regarding your relative, it sounds like she just wanted your blessing for what her brother has already decided to do.

      Thanks for your comment!


      • pathdoc

        Thanks for your insight. I didn’t see her need to be validated until you said that.

  3. The 50 Best Health Blogs

    “When my family wanted to hear about my first day of internship, I proudly related some of the details of what I’d been through, thinking they’d find it amusing, or at least fodder for some storytelling.”

    Shucks, I think that story is actually pretty interesting.

    • glasshospital

      As someone with an interest in health blogs (thanks for the shout out!), you may lie distant from the “normal” part of the spectrum. Then again, no one would ever call me or my family avatars of the rational, either.

  4. bw

    “Never again would I be able to share unfiltered details from my world.”

    Ha! I couldn’t have said it any better. I still struggle with the filter sometimes as I develop a repertoire of ‘user-friendly’ stories. I realized that people don’t want to hear about things that are actually interesting (to us, at least), they just want to be amused. Too bad for them that I am sometimes amused by their grossed-out faces!

  5. Liz

    I’m really glad I stumbled upon this blog! I’m two years out of college and interested in going into medicine and I’ve been trying to absorb as much information as I can about what it’s really like behind the “magic curtain” as you call it.

    • glasshospital

      Glad to have you on board. Keeping looking behind the curtain and you never know what you’ll learn!

  6. amara

    Great post! So funny and so true!

    Related short story: I was a third year med student and my roommate (an intern) had just moved into a new apartment together. She came home one night as one of the older neighbors was being loaded into an ambulance. As she worked her way through the small crowd, one of the older neighbors stopped her and said, “Hey, we heard that two doctors were moving in. Welcome! We’re glad you’re around!” Great……. 🙂

    Best regards!

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