The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments
I remember when I visited New York for the first time. One of the most distinct things I remember from that trip is the incredible range of smells, and even moreso, how fast the environmental odor would change. One corner would have the scent of hot, greasy pizza, and then I'd walk past someone with a strong perfume as I make my way down a metro stop. As I walk down the first few steps, there's the smell of urine, and once down the steps, the smell of vomit from a trashcan. As I approach my train, an abandoned bag of pastries that didn't quite make it into the trashcan smells like cinnamon, and then the guy next to me on the train reeks of body odor for the next twenty minutes.
That was the first time I remember being so odorously aware of my world, and that mindset of smell comes back to me again now whenever I work in the hospital.
One of the first things you notice, whether or not you want to, about a patient is the smell.
I walk into a room with the PA I'm working with, and the first thing she says is, "Oh, you have a UTI."
The patient stares at her and asks, "Really? How do you know?"
"It's the smell," she says. "There's a very particular smell that comes with a UTI. And when you've worked long enough, you can spot it."
I stood in the corner of the room watching this conversation, and tried a few sniffs of the air. There was certainly some funky smell--a bit metallic, sodden. It smelled like illness, something I would not want irradiating from my food. But I never would have associated it with a UTI. My nares were not as trained.
Sometimes, when seeing patients back to back, the experience of going from one room to another becomes a sampling plate for smells: room number one, an overwhelming stench of urine from a homeless man; room two, the patient just vomited onto the bed, and there's that fresh smell of half digested food and digestive enzymes; room three, cigarettes.
Yet, there are things on the plate that I can't identify. I've run into so many smells I've never smelled before, and trying to describe them is like describing a color that doesn't exist, at least not in the books. But I do know that the smell is there. Cancer has a unique smell. Fresh blood has its own smell.
And there was once a smell that I will never forget. The patient was lying flat down on her stomach on the bed, and the abscess was clear to view. It was the largest one I had seen before, a large red, bulbous protrusion that looked like a miniature model of Venus, hot red and stormy, had embedded itself into this woman's skin.
I didn't realize just how big it was though, until the Jennifer made the first cut to start draining it. A thick river of bloody pus squirted out of the hole and started flowing down the woman's skin. It would not stop oozing. With the stream still going, Jennifer stuck her hemostats into the pus, and the blades literally disappeared inside the woman. The room suddenly became overwhelmed with a a bacterial stink, as if an invisible cloud of pus was swarming into our noses. It felt like my face was being lathered in whatever was gushing from the abscess.
The abscess continued to drain. Whenever Jennifer pressed on the surrounding skin, a pool of the bloody pus would well up and overflow out of the crater of the abscess. It flowed between the patient's butt cheeks, down her legs, and onto the bed sheets, staining it with infection.
We were in there for almost 10 minutes waiting for all the pus to finish draining, and I felt like gagging several times. In the end, a total of 10 mL of that drainage was exorcised from the patient's abscess. Jennifer told me that was the biggest one she had seen before.
I will never forget that smell, and I can only imagine how many more distinct smells are to come. My last post talked about how interesting it can be to think of diseases through a musical lens, and it is also interesting to think of every disease as having its own smellable fingerprint. The olfactory tour of humanity goes on.
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.