the life of a medical student is somewhat left of normal. most people shy away from blood and guts and gore. as a medical student you need to embrace it. but in the beginning it is quite an adjustment. sometimes you don't know how much to adjust. what falls within the parameter of normal medical student desensitization and what is way too far?
i was a fourth year which in clinical terms meant i was at the bottom of the rung. i was doing my obstetrics rotation which meant i needed to deliver a certain quota of babies in a given time. we all tended to be goal orientated then. our registrar was the most junior obstetrics registrar in their department so she was even more goal orientated than we were. she was also a bit skittish.
so that day, when a lady came in fully dilated and then popped out a dead baby she seemed to go to ground. don't get me wrong. i do not enjoy the whole emotional roller-coaster involved in delivering a dead baby, but once it's done you need to move on, especially in kalafong where the constant stream of bursting women is never ending.
so there we were in kalafong labour ward in the middle of the night with a somewhat unstable registrar who suddenly seemed incapable of pretty much anything because she was so distraught. i had the thought that she should maybe try dermatology as a speciality. it wasn't too late to change. the house doctor spent quite a bit of time consoling her. time i thought could be better spent in consoling the mother who had just lost her child. but a fourth year's opinion was much less sought than listened to. finally the night went on.
some time later when the distraught mother was bundled off to the ward and the dead baby was bundled off to the morgue and the registrar bundled herself off to the doctor's room the call finally continued. we continued delivering babies while the registrar went through the prenatal record of the mother to try to see if there was a possible reason for the death. she discovered the mother's blood group was rhesus negative. this basically meant if the baby was rhesus positive the mother needed to get an injection of antibodies to prevent her developing her own antibodies against the rhesus factor. if this happened her chances of successfully bringing her next pregnancy to term would be greatly reduced. the registrar hadn't drawn the chord blood from the baby which is the normal method of getting blood to determine the baby's blood group. she therefore didn't know if the mother needed the injection or not. i simply thought it's not worth taking the risk and we should rather just give the mother the injection on the grounds that the baby was most probably rhesus positive. but the real reason the registrar was in a spin had to do with what the professor was going to say in a few short hours at handover about her not drawing chord blood from the baby. she settled on a plan.
"you!" she indicated my friend and i, "you are going to go down to the morgue and get that baby's blood. and you'd better move it. the sun will be up soon.
the morality of what she was asking didn't occur to me then. it was late and we were tired. also we were junior. if the registrar told us to do something then we were required to do it. so off we went.
kalafong is a scary place on a good night. the morgue was in a ditch along a deserted corridor. all was dark and foreboding. but we were on a mission and our over active imaginations weren't going to stop us. we finally found the poor baby and got to trying to get blood. then we discovered something. you actually need to be living for your blood to be drawn out of conventional veins. after a few attempts we graduated to trying to get blood through the frontal fontanelle. this also didn't work, probably because the small amount of blood there had clotted and couldn't be drawn up in a standard syringe. finally we stuck the biggest needle we had right into the heart and managed to get a small amount of blood. by this stage my own blood was curdling, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up and i felt sick to my soul. we left.
the registrar took the blood without so much as a small acknowledgement towards us that we had done something terrible so that she could avoid the wrath of the professor.
many times since then i have been haunted by how wrong what we had done there in the dank corridors of kalafong was, but it was a lifetime ago and maybe time does wash at least some sins away.