* * *In the summer of my junior year in college, I worked at Michael Reese Medical Center in Chicago, in the Department of Gastro-Intestinal Research, what would nowadays be called "Gastroenterology."
My official title was "Student," and I was hired as part of a summer program where the head of the lab brought in a college student from outside the field to work in the lab "und ask shtupid quevstions" (our Director was Heinrich Necheles, MD, PhD, and one of the last of the products of the great German universities before Hitler took over and kicked out the Jews). Necheles knew I had pretty much become an English major, which was a bit too "outside" the field, but I was just a couple hours short of a degree in Microbiology, from a respectable school, and that was close enough.
My job was like that of a summer intern, but "intern" means something else at a hospital, and I wasn't exploited to the degree interns are today. Anyway, one of my duties was to just be around as an observer who was bright but ignorant and ask questions that would force the people around me to explain things in terms layfolk — with a background in biology, but still layfolk — could understand. Another part of my duties was to be "low man in seniority" and do whatever needed to be done: help people as requested. And I had my own project they'd assigned: answer the question, "Would it be feasible to utilize strips of rat gut for the in vitro determination of the effects on stomach motility of a variety of pharmaceuticals?" The answer to that question was "No," and if they'd been able to do back then the sort of research you can do today in a couple hours on the web — if they'd been able to do the preliminary library research efficiently, they would have found out that it was known that rat gut didn't work very well for such assays, which is why labs doing that kind of work used guinea pig uteri.
I was able to turn in my final report on my project written out on a 3 x 5 card, so I had a lot of time for "low man in seniority" work, and for reading. (Necheles approved of my reading on the job, including works he hadn't assigned me. His most memorable comment was picking up my copy of a Buddhism-for-Ignoramuses book and asking who was reading it, to which I said, "I am, doctor," and he said, "Good book. Tends to stress the spiritual a bit too much, but if you keep that in mind, it's good." I replied, "I didn't know you'd studied Buddhism." He had, when he was in China, developing the artificial kidney — a point, the one about dialysis, he casually dropped into another conversation.)
One "LMiS" assignment came after a combination of two small mistakes.
The first was that some surgical wire got small kinds in a few places, weakening it. The second was that someone inadvertently put the wrong barbiturate in the Nembutal bottle, as it turned out, a significantly weaker barbiturate.
Nembutal is a brand name for pentobarbital, and it is described on Wikipedia as "a short-acting barbiturate" that "In high doses […] causes death by respiratory arrest," hence its use "for euthanasia for humans as well as animals."
We would pour a palmful or so of it in a very large syringe, add water, shake, and then use it to put down — euthanize, kill — animals that we were finished with. In most cases, the "euthanizing" was required by law and by ethics, as we were reminded by a placard in each room of the lab giving the rules for what, in the 1960s, was the ethical treatment of lab animals.
One of the lab techs had prepared such a syringe of, he thought, Nembutal solution and called me to go out with him in the courtyard to help him put down a dog.
The dog — a fairly small one — was lying in the courtyard outside the lab, on its right side, in obvious distress. I don't know what the study was, but it involved a large incision in the dog's left side, one large enough to require using surgical wire to hold together the ribs.
As I mentioned, the wire had been weakened and had broken, and the dog had in his side a gaping wound.
I squatted down and took the dog's left front paw, turning it to "pop" the vein. The other tech injected the barbiturate.
As I mentioned, the barbiturate wasn't Nembutal but something much less potent. The dog did not die, nor was it significantly anesthetized.
He panted, straining to breathe with his lungs exposed.
The other tech went inside, leaving me with the dog. I kept holding its leg and looking at him, in the face, with me squatting sideways to the dog.
Now something I hadn't mentioned.
One of my college classes was personal defense, and the one and only thing I was good at was what was called at the time and in that class "the Japanese choke hold." That was probably an error in terminology; anyway, it was the hold where one stands behind an opponent and, if all goes well, gets the forearm of one's dominant arm across the opponent's throat and the hand of one's other arm at the back of an opponent's head. (If I ever had to do this in actual personal defense, I would've bit into the opponent's back as well.) The idea isn't to choke but to cut the blood off to the brain and render the opponent unconscious, and limp. And then stop, because after the opponent loses consciousness there's the danger — probably slight, but there — of snapping his neck.
Looking down at the dog, as time went by, and he suffered, and the other tech did not return, I thought, "I might know how to kill this dog quickly."
And I started to stand up, but only a little bit up, in a position I couldn't long hold; and I heard simultaneously two voices, like in an old Morality Play: both speaking at once, but in some way that I could understand both.
One said, "Kill the dog. You just may know how. 'No animal shall be allowed to suffer more than is required for the experiment or longer than is required for the experiment.' That is your duty. That is what compassion requires."
The other said, an archaic voice, "Yes, kill the dog. You've killed with a needle, but what does it feel like to kill with your hands?"
And I was paralyzed while a line from T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral ran through my head, over and over, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
I have no idea how long I half-stood, half-crouched there, but my knees hurt for the rest of the day.
Then the other tech came over, kind of shook me, and we killed the dog.
Nothing came of my moment — or minutes — of paralysis, at least nothing in terms of my status at the lab. Aside from the decency and discretion of the other tech (or its never getting back to me if he gossiped), there were soon other things to talk about. The mix-up in barbiturates/anesthetics had other results.
Specifically, a dog who should have been thoroughly anesthetized turned out not to be, and when Dr. Ari — possibly his nickname — put the trachea tube in, the dog bit him, triggering the City of Chicago and State of Illinois's very stringent rules on rabies. So a cop or two showed up at the lab to impound the dog, who was in no shape to go anywhere given that a new anesthetic was prepared and the experiment performed and those State laws and professional ethics summarized on the wall plaques required that we kill the dog. And so the Rich story around the lab was that I was guy who carried the dog brain over to Public Health for examination for rabies, in a lunch cooler in a Planters' Dry Roasted Salted Peanuts jar.
The dog, of course, didn't have rabies; Dr. Ari's injury was slight — although a dog bite on a surgeon's hand is a matter for concern — and I finally got to use the mnemonic for the order of the cranial nerves. (The one I used went "On old Olympus's towering tops, / A Finn and German viewed some hops"; Dr. Ari was first of the group to identify the nerve we needed to know: "The mnemonic is faster in Japanese," he said. I have no idea why the form we filled out required us to identify the nerves involved in removing the brain.) By coincidence I worked the next summer at Illinois Public Health and was vaguely remembered as the guy who walked in with the brain in the Planters' Dry Roasted Peanut jar.
Several things came of the experience for me personally. Most obviously was my walking around for a couple or three or four years like a low-rent version of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, telling the story, including to the captive audience of some of my classes.
Clearly, the experience had gotten to me.
For one thing, Eliot's couplet is correct in its context in Murder in Cathedral, but mostly it's bullshit. George Carlin repeats somewhere in his impressive canon the Roman Catholic, high Anglican, and general Christian doctrine, "By your intentions shall ye be judged," and in a religion stressing belief and doctrine that stress on intentions makes sense. As my handful of loyal readers know, I'm more in the Jewish tradition of caring more about conduct: if people do the right thing for whatever reasons, at least they did the right thing.
The right thing with the dog at Reese would have been to kill him as quickly and humanely as possible. On the other hand, if I'd done so, I probably would have been traumatized by guilt, or maybe by too big a step toward self-recognition.
I had helped kill dogs with a needle: overdosing them. It's a quiet death, mostly visible by the lines on the instruments flattening out: "flatlining" as the expression has it. With the rats and one rabbit, I felt bad, but not that much; and the one cat we killed had almost blinded a volunteer — with justification: as part of an escape attempt — and I really wasn't around for when we finished with the cat.
Dogs are larger (generally) than cats or rabbits or — definitely — than rats, and however irrational that is, the larger size is significant; more significant, I'd grown up with dogs; dogs for me have strong reality as sentient beings: I like and have bonded with dogs.
"What would it feel like to kill with your hands?"
I am serious when I say that voice was archaic, and I'm pretty sure that at the time I had at most only heard of Carl Jung and knew little or nothing about his theory of the Shadow. I had met that Shadow, my Shadow, and I was not happy about it.
In my family, my sister was "the smart one"; I was "the good one."
But very apparently not entirely good, maybe, at the core, not good at all. Something deep inside of me, something very much part of me and what made me me was at least curious about killing and killing with emotional response a creature he saw as a someone, a face looking up at him, a face he knew elicited connection and compassion. He had to know that the face elicited connection and compassion because other aspects of me were feeling those emotions.
Paralysis was an answer, and the safest answer for my stability, but a wrong answer.
That time of paralysis, the time of unnecessary suffering for that dog, is upon my conscience and, like some of my work that summer more generally, still, a bit, upon my soul.