Friday, August 10, 2012

Erich Maria Remarque may have written about med school — by accident

WHILE SKIMMING through my dusty stack of books this evening, I got hold of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, which I had read last year. The short novel is a searing and moving account of young German soldier Paul Bäumer in the trenches. Shortly after World War I began, he and his classmates are drafted for the battlefield.

And it hit me: Erich Maria Remarke may well have written about medical school—by accident.

The narratives of being in the trenches make great analogies of what to expect in, say, the emergency room on a Saturday night. There's also that danger of leaving one's things unattended:
The clearing station is very busy. It smells of carbolic, pus and sweat, just like it always does. You get used to a lot of things when you are in the barracks, but this can really turn your stomach. We keep on asking people until we find out where Kemmerich is; he is in a long ward, and welcomes us weakly, with a look that is part pleasure and part helpless agitation. While he was unconscious, somebody stole his watch. p.9
On death and dying:
There is no longer life pulsing under his [Kemmerich's] skin—it has been forced out already to the very edges of his body, and death is working its way through him, moving outwards from the center, it is already in his eyes. p. 10
On the first patient encounter:
The air is getting hazy with smoke from the guns and fog ... The thunder of artillery fire makes our truck shake, the echo rolls on after the firing and everything shudders. Our faces change imperceptively. We don't have to go into the trenches, just on wiring duty, but you can read it on every face: this is the front, we're within the reach of the front. p. 37
We're the young recruits; the more experienced residents and interns are the thick-skinned creatures:
It isn't fear, not yet. Anyone who has been at the front as often as we have gets thick-skinned about it. Only the young recruits are jumpy. p. 37
When new, unconscious patients are rushed to the resuscitation area:
It is the same every time. When we set out we are just soldiers—we might just be grumbling or we might be cheerful; and then we get to the first gun replacements, and every single word we utter takes on a new sound. p. 38
On post-duty status—muscle aches, fatigue, and everything in between:
Another night. The tension has worn us out. It is a deadly tension that feels as if a jagged knife blade is being scraped along our spine. Our legs won't function, our hands are trembling and our bodies are like thin membranes stretched over barely repressed madness, holding in what would otherwise be unrestrained outburst of endless screams ... And so we press our lips together tightly—it has to stop, it has to stop—perhaps we'll get through it all. p. 77
On going home and getting some sleep:
It's the last evening at home. Nobody is much inclined to talk. I go to bed early, get hold of my pillow, hold tight to it and put my head into it. Who knows when I shall be lying in a feather bed again? p. 126
Truth be told, PGH can feel like a war zone sometimes. That's the wonder of literature: how people long dead, those who didn't know us, could describe our situations better than we do. Fascinating, I know.

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