Guest Blogger: Reija Matheson


Reija is a first-year medical student in upstate New York. She earned a master’s in microbiology and immunology from Stanford, and she makes the best strawberry-plum pie on either side of the Mississippi. She sits at the only all-girl table in her anatomy class.

After our first anatomy exam Dr. O. took our lab group aside and told us a secret: We had the highest group average on the first exam. Congratulations, he told us. We four girls squealed and then giggled in celebration.

I think that Congratulations was really more of a Curse.

Since the first exam, our anatomy group has taken a little turn for the worse. Maybe it’s the second exam “let’s use a bone saw and rip the heart out of the chest” thing. But that’s nothing out of the ordinary really, if you’re a 20th century medical student or an ancient Aztec priest. I don’t know. All I know is that things haven’t been quite as together since. Trying to remove some pericardium one day, I broke the other side’s phrenic nerve. Sorry, I said. By the end of the lab, someone had broken the nerve on my side. Our nerves–shall we say–have been fragile.

Maybe it’s a girl-heart thing. Most days there are big advantages to being an all-female group. More patience. More respect. Smaller fingers working on those fragile nerves. But some days I wish for a manlier presence, if only for the muscle. We had to borrow Tyler for the head-in-half day. Lauren and I sat on the lab stools while he sawed. “I know God wants me to be a doctor,” I told her. “But I’m not sure He wanted this to be a part of it.”

Yesterday I went into lab and found Lauren crying, her green eyeshadow a little smeared and her chest heaving under her yellow plastic lab smock. Her grandmother was dying. I handed her a scalpel. “Want to talk about it?” I asked.

Lauren pulled back a flap of the skin of our 85-year old female cadaver and started to cut away at the faschia. She stopped and handed the scalpel to me. I continued cutting as she sniffled, pulled back the skin edge with a hemostat and talked about how she wasn’t ready for another death, not after her father’s unexpected passing last February. Ariel, a waif-thin blond ballet dancer who spent all of the head dissections blinking back tears (“It’s a human body with its head cut off!” she said to me one day when we were alone) tied the back of Lauren’s gown together and emptied the waste bucket, Lauren’s usual job.

Anatomy lab both defies and unites femininity in the oddest of ways. Nothing could be less feminine than donning those ugly yellow smocks and bug glasses and sawing away at people. This is why crazy scientists are almost uniformly depicted as male. But as in most ordeals, I find that doing the horrific binds women together in a way that isn’t quite the same with men. Yesterday as we scraped at abdominal muscles, we talked not only about Lauren’s grandma, but my feelings of loneliness and Kristy’s roommates and the last exam. All this we could have easily said around a park bench, except that we wouldn’t have been close together like that in the park. How is it that peering inside of the heart of an elderly woman helps us to reveal our own?

Despite our difficulties our anatomy group does have great things going for it: cute shoes and determination (Kristy), fantastic eye makeup and endurance (Lauren), elegance and tenderness (Ariel), and in moments, a little bit of chutzpah (me). With a little break over Thanksgiving and with each other, I’d say we’ll be ready to grab at our scalpels and scissors and be back on top by Christmas.

Read more of Reija’s medical school experiences here: