When I walked into the lunchroom, I noticed the new hire staring at the decorative containers that lined the perimeter.
“Those are coffee grounds,” I explained. He still looked confused.
“Coffee grounds. To stave off the scent of death,” I added, unsure whether this sounded too melodramatic. He nodded. I carried my lunch back to my desk. I usually ate at my desk or skipped it altogether and went for a walk. In spite of the coffee potpourri’s best efforts, the lunchroom smelled strongly of death because it was located next to the area where the cadavers were stored.
I had taken this job as a cadaver donation coordinator for biomedical research thinking that it would boost my applications to Harvard, UCLA, the University of Washington, and a handful of smaller private medical schools. The pay wasn’t great, but that was OK. It was an opportunity to learn a lot and contribute in some small way to medical research. The job consisted of answering “death calls,” the call from a nurse or family member letting us know that a donor had passed, setting in motion a checklist of tasks, like assessing what kind of research a cadaver might be suitable for, and managing the logistics of transporting the deceased to the company’s nearest location. Once, I answered the phone and heard the widow of my high school astronomy teacher weeping. I stuttered, trying to find a polite way to ask if her husband had ever used intravenous drugs. I knew he wasn’t the type to have even smoked pot in the ’60s, but I was still required to ask. Sensitive questions like this were routine steps in determining the risk of a contagion like HIV, hepatitis or mad cow disease.
“The only thing he loved more than the stars and me was teaching his students,” my astronomy teacher’s widow told me at the end of the screening questions. “I’m so grateful that I got to speak with you. He’d be so happy to know that you pursued a career in science.” I hung up the phone and felt like crying. But first I needed to call the nearest funeral home. Waking the funeral director in my hometown from a nap, I instructed him to pick up my teacher and place his body in refrigeration within the next two hours.
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Ten hours after explaining the coffee grounds to my new co-worker, I shut down my computer and locked up to go home. I forwarded all incoming death calls to my cell phone, because there was no one else available to work the overnight shift again. I left the office and ran through the rain to my car. Gripping the steering wheel, I prayed that I wouldn’t crash into the concrete divider, rocked to sleep by the freeway’s gentle curves. Once home, I drowsily stumbled out of bed every few hours to answer a new death call.
My workaholism was not born of ambition. The company I worked for made it clear that they did not “do raises” or promotions. There was a strict policy that employees could never be paid overtime. And for a while, I was OK with that, because I was naive and believed that my job was helping to make the world of biomedical research a better place. My loyal company man optimism waned after months of overtime without pay in our short-staffed office. Granted, Joe, whose name has been changed here, along with those of my other former co-workers, had pancreatic cancer. Liz could barely walk, after a filing cabinet had fallen on her in the office, and my boss, Katie, was out on vacation. But I was beginning to crumble from working too much. My hair was falling out, insomnia plagued me even when I didn’t need to answer death calls from home, and stress-induced dyshidrotic eczema was beginning to make my hands bleed.
On a rare day that I was able to have lunch with my friend Callie instead of working or studying for the MCAT, she insisted on examining how bad the eczema was. I protested, recoiling my hands in embarrassment. Callie reminded me that she worked as a medical assistant. I unfurled my hands over the Cobb salad for her to see. She morbidly joked that I had “bad job stigmata” and gave me the number of a dermatologist. It dawned on me that I was living in a corporate office horror movie. Callie texted me the number of the state’s labor and industries (L&I) office to contact for advice. When I finally worked up the nerve, they were too busy to answer, so I left several rambling, stressed-out voice messages, asking for help. Inevitably, when an L&I agent called me back, I was on the phone with a sobbing widow during a death call and our game of phone tag began again. In some strange way, their busyness comforted me. At least I was not the only person who was calling to complain about my horrible job.
When I saw my therapist, we talked about how, since kindergarten, I had always loved school and work for the safe and orderly structure they provided. My self-destructive work ethic was built upon a bedrock of PTSD and poverty. I admitted to depending on the steady logic that if I studied hard enough, I would probably earn an A. If I strived hard enough, I would probably remain employed. Ever the meticulous perfectionist, this frayed constitution simultaneously made me an ideal worker and a blighted medical school candidate.
The day before my co-worker Joe died, his complexion looked very gray. He had returned to work after less than a week of recovery from a surgery for his cancer. I told him that he should go home to rest, or maybe to the hospital. Joe laughed and reassured me that he was fine. He said that Katie had asked him to come back to work early because we were understaffed. When Katie announced Joe’s death at the staff meeting the next day, I was devastated. He had worked himself to death for this cursed company that cared more about cadavers and profit margins than its living, breathing, dying employees. There was no office memorial service because “we’re too busy,” as Katie explained. A month after Joe’s death, I heard through office gossip that Joe’s wife had invited all of us to a wake at their home, but Katie hadn’t forwarded the email. We all found out when Joe’s wife called to angrily complain about how evil the company was and how little the executives cared that the long hours had killed her husband.
“Katie probably didn’t forward the invitation to Joe’s service because she didn’t want us taking any time off,” one of my co-workers scowled. I was so shaken by Katie and the CEO’s callousness, I called my little brother on my lunch break. Pacing in the meadow behind the building, I told him what had happened to Joe.
I had recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer. It had been caught early, but it still scared me. Maybe I would be the next employee to die. My brother was a lumberjack who always worked overtime and had a near-death experience story every week. He mumbled some pragmatic wisdom about death being a thing that happens to everyone. I sighed and joked about wishing that there was an AA meeting for workaholics. He laughed and pointed out that workaholics earn tokens for their insobriety every time they get a paycheck.
“I wish I knew how to take a vacation. I wish I could afford to just leave my job,” I said.
“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” my brother laughed. I hung up and headed back into the office.
I was stamping invoices when the phone rang. It was a donor that I had preregistered a few weeks ago, calling to say hello and check in. Some of the preregistered donors — people who had completed all of the paperwork in advance to donate their bodies to science — were like this and called to chat occasionally. A range of ages, some of them were pre-med college students like me, but more often they were elderly or in hospice care and had made arrangements to donate in lieu of an expensive funeral. There was one woman who called to tell me about her cats every week. And an elderly man who tried to convince me that I should become a train conductor like he had been, instead of wasting my time and money on school. It was a pleasant highlight of the workday to talk about something not depressing, and some of the preregistered donors seemed very lonely. Listening to stories about their grandchildren and cats was the least I could do, considering that they were generously giving their bodies to medical research, benefitting future generations.
The donor who had called to say hello again was a guy in his 20s who had been diagnosed with metastatic cancer months after graduating from medical school. I felt a connection with him. He was living my worst nightmare of struggling to finish medical school only to have it all torn away at the end. Granted, my early-detected cervical cancer had been far more operable than the cancer that drove him into hospice care before his 30th birthday. But I was shaken by the proximal kismet his life seemed to share with mine. He called periodically on days that I was in the office. He told me that he wished he had not wasted the last decade of his life in college only to die at the end of it. He told me that he hoped his body could be used for science, now that his expensively educated mind couldn’t be. I listened; what could I possibly say? I didn’t tell him anything about my cancer. I didn’t tell him much at all. I just quietly archived charts, reviewed medical records, and screened the surgical histories of deceased donor cases while I listened to him talk.
When he died, I was grateful that his case wasn’t assigned to me. I only discovered that he had passed away when I saw his name printed on an itinerary at the end of my shift. I clocked out and drove home in a daze, thinking about life, death and medical school. When I woke in the middle of the night, I was still dressed in the same clothes. I felt overwhelmed. Worried that I could meet the same fate. Medical residents are known for putting everything on hold in their lives, including their own health, to become doctors. I struggled to inhale deep breaths and tried to remember why I even wanted to be a doctor. Picking up my trusty MCAT study guide, I flipped through the dog-eared pages for an answer. But my illegible notes and highlighter marks only reminded me of the nights that I had spent with this book instead of going out with friends or having a life. I turned to get a glass of water, and the book flopped down onto the floor, flayed open in limp defeat. I took this as a sign and carried it outside. Banishing it and all of the time it had cost me, I tossed the textbook into a free box on the street corner, where someone else had discarded their red feather boa and a computer keyboard from the ’90s. I ran back inside to gather all of my medical school essay drafts and throw them in the trash too. Essays about the importance of empathy for physicians and the sordid history of medical research. Purple diatribes about what I hoped to contribute to medicine and humanity. I tried not to read them, for fear that they might change my mind.
I didn’t know what I wanted anymore, but I was certain that I did not want to struggle through medical school only to die at the end. I wanted to study medicine, but not at the expense of putting my life on hold for the next decade. I no longer knew what I liked or what made me happy, but I was going to figure it out. I was going to fully appreciate right now. I had no idea how to do that exactly, but I was going to start with searching for a new job. I had to quit this terrible company before it killed me too.
I filled out what felt like hundreds of job applications. Typing my name over and over again as if in a trance. Sinking into a depression, I began to feel hopeless after the first week of searching. Tediously editing my resume, tweaking it for each company. Fighting against dreary exhaustion. I had pre-med student loans, no savings, and the cadaver company was sucking the life out of me. I was at work when I finally got the call: A job offer at a teaching hospital! I immediately drafted my two weeks’ notice to Katie. By this time, almost everyone else at the company had quit. A wave of guilt swept over me as I sent the email announcing that I was leaving. Pathologically empathetic, I thought of the donor families and co-workers that I was abandoning. But my new job was a perfect fit, now that I had all of this pre-med knowledge and no medical school to attend. I learned new things every day at the hospital and occasionally helped with research studies. Working closely with the residents, I scheduled their heavy caseloads, saw their struggles, and witnessed the toll that it all took on their families. These were daily reminders not to regret my decision to quit school.
Within a few years, I was happily married, cancer-free, and working no more than 40 hours a week. I had become the kind of happy that is annoying. In some ways, I felt strangely grateful that my job had been so awful, because even on my most stressful days, never again would a job make me feel like I’d be more valued if I just died at my desk and gifted them my corpse.
I learned so much from the cadavers: anatomy, epidemiology, the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner. I learned that we all grieve in different ways, none of them wrong. And I learned a lot about myself in the time that I chose not to go to medical school. I learned that I am not my job. That it doesn’t matter what my title or credentials are. It doesn’t matter how many letters I have trailing behind my name. Cadavers taught me that life outside of work should be worth living.