In nursing school, to learn about human anatomy, we dissected stray cats. The tiny blobs and structures inside them looked more like toys than organs; at times I had difficulty telling one part from another.
When our instructor got us invited to the medical school’s Anatomy Lab that studied real people, I was excited to finally see a complete human body. Maybe there would be straight pins with little flags for each section of the heart and brain. I expected the experience to be like our Cat Lab: clinical and unemotional.
She is wearing an al amira, a two-piece veil consisting of a close-fitting cap and an accompanying tube-like scarf. The rest of her body is covered by her loose-fitting abaya, despite Philadelphia's sweltering July heat. I have learned that these garments are traditionally worn by Muslim women as an expression of modesty when they're in the presence of males not in their immediate family.
Only a medical student, and feeling awkward in her presence, I would trail behind, tapping out a note before hurrying off to catch up with the team.
Two daughters bring their severely demented mother into the clinic. The mother is no longer able to speak, but over the last few days she has groaned more during diaper changes. Her nursing home is worried she might have a bladder or vaginal infection. To check her urine, we undress her and catheterize her. To check her vagina, we take a swab using a speculum. We spin the urine and look for sediment under the microscope. Nothing. We look at the vaginal smear under the microscope, using both a saline prep and potassium hydroxide. Nothing. We treat her for bacterial vaginosis, because it's a condition that's easy to miss.
“Use the room over there,” she said, pointing towards the closed door to my right and handing me a clear, plastic cup with blue-twist top. “When you’re done, open the slot behind you, place the sample and close the slot door.”
It’s opening day at my cancer hospital. First peek into my innards is a urine sample, checking for protein. Too much excreted protein may signal kidney disease, a death knell to my upcoming cancer treatment. Which would in turn mean a death knell for me. The urine sample will be followed by a needlestick into one of my veins to fill an endless line of blood tubes. Some will be used to check routine blood labs. The rest will be mailed to some lab somewhere for monitoring my immune response during treatment.
For sixty-seven years, my dad was my best friend. We enjoyed walking and talking, taking long drives while licking ice cream cones, traveling, and just sitting in companionable silence.
We were best friends, but we always respected each other’s physical privacy. All of this changed when I became Dad’s caregiver.
There are many ways to be naked. There's physical nakedness, and there's also the nakedness of feeling vulnerable. When my body and hence my life have been out of control, it has felt like nakedness. When I have had no covering against the elements, whether physical or psychological, I have felt naked.