The smell of smoke was acrid. The wisps of burnt silicone wafting past my face were a taunting
reminder of my inadequacy. I had nearly burnt down my friend’s house, but it was a selfish time in my life, so hard not to make it about me.
Surgical residents delight in the comparison of hours worked and not slept, pronouncing their ‘call karma’ as the worst, priding themselves on their induction into the exclusive club with a small flavour of S&M. But fifth year, the exam year, is acknowledged as a terrible time. Everything hangs in the balance of one exam; reputation, career, marriage, ability to get up in the morning. Now, beyond this hurdle, I reassure residents that the exam does not define them, their adequacy as a surgeon or human being, but even as I say it, I am not sure I believe it and certainly would not have at the time. Real or confabulated, I was stressed and distracted.
Even when crumbling however, one must not surrender one’s overachieving tendencies. Top marks are required, even in menstrual product selection. Enter the Diva Cup, an egg sized silicone cup that fits within the vaginal vault, sparing the landfills one endometrial shedding at a time. They include no disclaimer, but I will provide one. This device is not well suited to changing in the public washrooms. Should you ever enter a public stall and see blood spattered against the toilet, walls and floor, there are only two explanations: someone was murdered or a novice Diva Cup user was there and is now desperately trying to source a new pair of pants. The Diva Cup instructions recommend monthly sterilization to which I diligently complied, boiling the silicone cup on the stove for fifteen minutes.
The day I met Mr. February and the rest of his firefighting crew, I was studying with a fellow fifth year resident. We spent thousands of hours together studying, typically stuffed in the hospital broom closet converted to study room adjacent to the surgical floor on the second floor of the aging Civic hospital. There we reviewed old exams, poured over textbooks and yes, sometimes googled in desperation when answers to the cryptic multiple choice were not forthcoming. We also weathered practice oral exams, and quizzing by staff surgeons. My brain flopping between the presented question and those floating in the periphery - “Am I worthy? Should I start a dog walking business and abandon surgery?”, attempting to read into the raise of the eyebrow or faint smile, the approval I sought.
The oral exam is a performance art, requiring the ability to organize and verbalize under significant stress, being presented with challenging and at times obtuse, surgical conundrums. There was no room for the questioning up turn of my voice. My fellow resident, on the other hand, let’s call him Dr. G, was the master. If there were cracks, I could not see them. Never a waver. He did not struggle to silence the stream of conscious, which would wander between possibilities. The goal was to commit and justify the plan. I could not yet see the secret power of my doubt, the permission it gave me to be wrong, the check and balance it would provide to the power I was to hold over people’s lives.
Dr.G carried the same confidence in his communication to the nurses. His curt responses were met with respect and deference. Whereas I knew instinctively the tight rope I danced along. ‘Respect me but like me, respect me but like me’ was the unspoken whisper behind every interaction. But I was great at the dance and did not question the reasons I needed to follow its steps.
It was Dr.G whom I was studying with in the stuffy closet when I got the call from my friend’s nanny, “ I smelled smoke coming from your suite.”
“Fuck”, the realization of the forgotten pot dawned on me.
“…the fire department arrived… no one was hurt.”
“Fuck.” Cracks opened to a chasm.
Weeping, I lamented my fucking uterus, the fucking exam, my fucking life. Shell shocked, Dr.G
awkwardly patted my back, his cool confidence shaken by my emotional tsunami.
I arrived home as the fire crew was leaving. They were kind and deeply unprepared for my answer to the question, ‘what did you leave on the stove?’
An in-depth explanation of the reusable menstrual cup was a good way to truncate a stern warning regarding fire safety but admittedly that life lesson has proved less useful than one would have hoped.
Perhaps, there is another lesson, a lesson for the diva, of hidden strength, letting go of perfection and unlearning that which hobbles power and compassion alike.
Dr. Haney is a surgeon and sheep farmer who dabbles in flash nonfiction to stay interested in the stories of life and medicine.