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Mysteries and Messages of Death and Life from a Forensic Pathologist
By Janis Amatuzio
New World LibraryCopyright © 2006 Janis Amatuzio, MD
All rights reserved.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
— ALBERT EINSTEIN
How did you get this way?" an old friend recently asked me over lunch.
"What way?" I answered.
"You know, the way you are ..."
"You mean a forensic pathologist with a book? No, I know what you mean," I answered with a grin. "I'm just being Janis."
"Just Janis" has been a joke in our family ever since I was very young, five or six, I think, and was learning how to answer the phone. A family friend called to speak with my mother. Apparently surprised that I had answered, she asked, "Who is this?"
"Oh, just Janis," I replied, startled, and I abruptly dropped the phone and ran for my mother.
But I think if I answer my friend's question, and explain how "just Janis" got this way, that might make this collection of stories and experiences more meaningful for the reader.
When I was a little girl, my mother always said I had a vivid imagination; but then again, I had an extraordinary family. When I was young, I had not one but two imaginary friends who used to play with me for hours around the house. Their names were Rara and Gerry, and they were always there whenever I wanted to play. With them, I made up new games, fairy castles, and magic places. And then there were my animals, especially Morgi, my well-worn, soft stuffed dog with blue button eyes, a big black nose, and the red tongue that my "Gammy" (my mother's mother) sewed back on at least a dozen times.
During the Korean War, my father served in the Naval Medical Corps, which supplied the physicians for the Marine Corps. My dad was stationed at a Marine base in Japan, treating the sick and wounded. I don't remember seeing him leave, except I noticed that my Gammy came to stay with Mother and me. I was thrilled to have such a wonderful companion who would take me for walks, read to me always, and play for hours in the sandbox. Those were very good days. Later, my younger brother, Barry, and sister, Patty, were added to the family — as well as the dachshunds Fritzie and Piccolo.
I grew up watching my mother and father work very hard. From them I learned to set goals and set them high. My mother would say you could accomplish anything if you set your mind to it. So I did. I graduated at the top of my high school class, won a young artists piano competition and performed at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, became a ski instructor and a water safety instructor, and graduated from medical school and residency training with all the associated examinations. I really can work — I really have worked — very hard!
But there is another part to me, as well, a part that doesn't really believe in working quite so hard, even though work seems to be a habit I learned very well. That part of me loves to just play and dance and read; that is the largely unexplored part of my adult self, one I still at times have to give myself permission to be.
So, how did I get what my friend called "this way"? I have begun to pay more attention to the part of me that doesn't need to work hard, and I have remembered that the "extraordinary" seems to be there whenever I take time to be "just Janis" — to stop, to listen to a patient or a family member, to laugh or joke with them, or for myself to just sleep, play, or reflect.
This awareness seems to have everything to do with what I am not doing. Now, when I pause, I see threads of magical awareness woven into the fabric of my life from the beginning. Most of the time as they were happening, I only caught a glimpse. As I have begun to realize they are there, I have become gently aware of the extraordinary love that surrounds me. Always.
I vividly remember the day Dad finally came home from Korea. I was almost three years old, and he looked so happy and so handsome that Mother tells me I had a sudden attack of shyness and hid behind the counter. But Dad must have anticipated my reticence — tucked under his arm was a big, white, fluffy dog with a pink ribbon around her neck, and as soon as I noticed the dog, my shyness disappeared.
I was delighted as he gently put the dog, already named Fee-Fee, in my arms. I listened with wide eyes as he told me how Fee-Fee helped drive the airplane that brought him home from the hospital in Japan. The flight had been rough, and Fee-Fee had braved storms and winds and all sorts of hardships to make sure everyone was safe. Dad said she even wore goggles and a helmet but he had had to leave those behind for the other pilots. I knew that doggie was a hero like my Dad and treated her accordingly.
Fee-Fee became my best friend and constant companion; she even slept under the covers with me every night and guarded the edge of the bed. She gradually lost her bow, her fur, and her stuffing. One day, many years later, she mysteriously disappeared. I still wonder what happened.
I know my mother was right about my imagination. But I also know that my father had one too, and he tantalized us with his incredible stories, dreams, and wild tales of adventure. When Mother would nod in agreement, I just knew the stories had to be true! Now I reflect back on long ago and have to laugh at myself, since my imaginary friends, as well as Fee-Fee and Morgi, seem as real to me today as they did then.
However, as an adult and author, occasionally I, too, wonder about my "vivid imagination" in relationship to all the extraordinary synchronicities and experiences I have recorded. Not long ago, a physician colleague laughingly asked me, "Do you think you have been making it all up?" His comment caught me up short when he said it, and I vigorously denied any suggestion of the sort. But later, when I was alone, I painfully pondered his suggestion.
Then I remembered something forgotten, one of my earliest memories — an experience marked by a feeling of what I can only describe as ecstasy. I realize now, as I write these words, the memory is still marked by that bliss. Let me set the stage.
My mother, Verda Ann Barry, came from humble beginnings, growing up in Sisseton, South Dakota. She was the youngest of four children born to Margaret Bridget O'Brien and Clyde Burton Barry. Her father was a day laborer, and her mother tended to the family and made extra money cooking for threshing crews in the fall and later keeping the books at a local dry goods store. My mother grew up in a home most would consider poor. Hard work, home cooking, homemade clothes, honest living, and the love of her family surrounded her.
Her parents encouraged her to go on to school after she graduated at the top of her high school class as valedictorian. They were thrilled when she was accepted into the nurses training program at Eitel Hospital in Minneapolis, for she was the first in her family to receive any education past high school. Mother, too, was proud and excited. However, when she boarded the train to leave Sisseton for the Twin Cities the first time, she told me, she cried all the way there.
During her nurses training she met my father, Donald Amatuzio, then a senior medical student. He had grown up in West Duluth, Minnesota, the oldest of five children born to Margaret Chiovotti and Alberto Blaze Amatuzio, who had both emigrated from Italy with their families in the early 1900s. My father was the first in his family to attend college. He began his studies at the University of Minnesota in the school of engineering, but in the middle of his second year, he applied to medical school on a dare from a classmate. He was accepted into medical school for the fall — a decision that changed the course of his life.
My parents were married during World War II, after Mother graduated from nurses' training and Dad from medical school. My father had an internship at Mercy Hospital in Chicago and then did a tour of duty in the navy. After the war he pursued residency training in internal medicine and chest and heart disease. My mother practiced nursing for six years, until I was born and my father was called back into service for the Korean conflict.
Since Mother stayed home with her children, we three blissfully felt we had her undivided attention. Her quiet and gentle energy permeated everything she did, from painting beautiful ceramics to knitting to cooking and cleaning. I began helping her clean the house very early on; she would run the vacuum, and I would carry the cord! She insisted on order in our home, which led to familiar routines that I recognize in myself to this day. One of them was eating dinner all together every evening at six o'clock sharp; another was my practicing the piano for an hour every morning before school. And more important, we were all in bed every night on schedule, although on Sunday nights it was after Lassie and Disneyland, and in later years, after watching Hoss and Little Joe on Bonanza.
Before I started school at age four, I had an afternoon nap right after lunch. Mother would firmly insist on the nap, even when I protested that I wasn't tired at all. She would humor me sometimes by letting me sleep on her and my father's bed, which was covered with a white cotton bedspread with fringe on the edges. (I always hoped this privilege was granted only to me as the oldest child!)
I remember one particular afternoon when Mother let me nap on the big bed. She pulled down the window shades, covered me with a light blanket, and kissed me on the cheek. She shut the bedroom door behind her, and I drifted off to sleep. What happened next I recall as if it were yesterday. A large, light-filled being appeared at my bedside. He was surrounded by soft white light laced with brilliant dancing colors as if they were bouncing from a prism in bright sunlight. He was so familiar in such an intimate way, it was as if I had known him forever. He took my hand gently and lifted me effortlessly up out of bed.
The light surrounded both of us yet didn't hurt my eyes. It was warm and comforting. I began to play with it, and colors bounced and swirled with just the touch of my hand. I remember splashing and swirling them, and laughing with joy when they began to take on form. Then he took my hand, and together we left the bedroom. The beautiful light continued to swirl around us, and suddenly two luminous horses emerged to carry us high above the earth. We soared over the most beautiful land ever seen, filled with all the colors of the rainbow and more. The hues in the light seemed to shimmer and vibrate as if alive, connecting heaven and earth.
As we soared on the backs of the beautiful horses, the being told me he was my guardian and guide. Without words, with only his thoughts, he told me he would accompany me throughout my entire life, as if riding by my side. He sent a wave of light streaming toward me. I remember reaching for it and wrapping it around me. As I did, an amazing feeling of love, joy, and ecstasy filled my heart, as well as a knowing ... that together we would grace the land with beautiful light. I knew that I had never been so happy as right then and there.
I am not sure whether that magical afternoon was the beginning of my awakening or perhaps the end of my childhood "remembering," since I don't recall anything remotely similar happening until many years later.
Now as I reflect again on my colleague's comment, I smile to myself, as I realize I have felt a lifelong connection with horses (Eddie, Mo, Cee, Charlie, and Rudy, to mention a few), who have graced my life and given me great happiness. I also have begun to recognize the gentle and reassuring presence of my "guide"; those moments are always marked by deep reassurance and joy.CHAPTER 2
MEDICAL SCHOOL DAZE
I was accepted into medical school at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1973. There were almost two hundred students in the freshman class, and twelve of us were women. I was excited, proud, and scared all at the same time on the first days of class. High energy was in the air as we were introduced to our instructors, given our ID cards and name tags, and assigned to our classroom and shiny blue lockers. The freshman class of '73 was the first group to have classes in the new med school building. The bright colors, fresh paint, and clean floors of Building A seemed to reflect our enthusiasm and fervor.
We studied many fascinating and not-so-fascinating subjects that first year, but by far the class that both terrified and excited me most was human anatomy. It was offered in one of the old buildings, Jackson Hall — in the same room, in fact, where my father had taken the class so many years before. There we were privileged to learn by actually examining and dissecting a real arterially embalmed human body. Four medical students were assigned to each table.
The huge human anatomy laboratory room was on the third floor, in the northwest corner of Jackson Hall. Large oak trees lined busy Washington Avenue below, and that fall, their gold and red leaves filled the windows with vivid color.
My first and strongest impression of the class was the overwhelmingly pungent odor. The smell of formaldehyde and embalming fluid literally permeated the walls and clung to the floors and ceilings. Three other medical students and I were assigned to our cadaver station, which was, fortunately, located in the corner of the room and was flanked by big windows on each side. We routinely opened them wide to ease the smell, but nothing could erase it from our memory.
All the bodies we examined were generous gifts or donations, bequeathed by families or at the request of the person before death. That knowledge did not really reduce my apprehension about what I would see, and I let the three other students at our table elevate the body from its stainless steel storage container to table-top height and unzip the bag. I must admit, I was surprised at my reaction. As the body bag was slowly opened, I wasn't frightened or upset, but was quite relieved. Our cadaver was a petite, pretty, elderly woman with pale blonde-gray hair, fair skin, and neatly painted rose-colored fingernails. She wasn't scary at all; actually, she looked like the wife of one of my father's medical school friends, Edith,and that promptly became her name! My three male medical student partners were slightly amused, but they agreed that the name fit. Edith and I spent from twelve to twenty hours together each week in the anatomy lab that first year, as I carefully dissected and identified the veins, arteries, and nerves in her arms and legs, neck, chest, abdomen, and head, learned the relationships of the organs to one another, and always, always memorized my newfound knowledge each step of the way.
Curiously, one early October afternoon stands out in my mind. We had been in school for almost a month and a half by then, enough time to begin to grapple with the heavy workload and to realize there was no time in the day for anything except attending class, studying, eating, and sleeping. In fact, I really didn't have time to think about myself at all, only about studying and passing exams.
That particular afternoon our dissection centered on the upper arm, and my partner, Paul, and I, were laboriously dissecting the vessels, muscles, and nerves of the right arm. The windows were wide open, and a warm, sweet wind gently blew gusts of fresh air into our corner. I looked up suddenly and glanced outside. For some reason my glance landed on a gray squirrel staring intently at me from his safe perch on a limb not far from the window. In that moment it was as though my point of view suddenly shifted, as if I were outside myself looking into the cadaver laboratory.
I became acutely aware of the warmth of the autumn sunlight, the rustle of the leaves in the gusts of wind, the constant stream of traffic below, and the rugged feel of the bark of the tree. It seemed that time ceased in that moment, and my awareness telescoped a thousand times. A perception of great beauty and familiar stillness filled my heart; I was both startled and delighted at the sudden shift. I knew in that instant, somehow, all was well and had been perfectly created for just that time and space. All of it was exquisitely interlinked. I wondered why I had never noticed things that way before.
The experience passed quickly, and I was back again. My attention refocused on the anatomy lab, my studies, and the work in front of me. However, a pervasive sense of peacefulness filled my heart, one that had not been there moments before. The shift had occurred spontaneously, and the moment passed, almost without my noticing.
Excerpted from Beyond Knowing by Janis Amatuzio. Copyright © 2006 Janis Amatuzio, MD. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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