Oh, man, have I got a story that relates to this image.
It’s one of those stories that I ought to talk about on MLIAD one day, but I’ll share it here.
Back in middle/high school, I was in a program called Science Olympiad. It was super rad: you did all these events about different topics. I did everything from genetics to simple machines, tossing in entomology and rubber band powered flight as well. Through my career I probably participated, in some way, in at least 70% of the offered events and topics.
And in eighth grade, I remember, they added a new trial event. It was still in it’s testing phase, they weren’t sure how far it was gonna go, but doing well in a trial event is pretty badass, so I picked it up.
At the first few invitationals, I did well, placing within the top 6 each time. It was a straightforward event, they’d hand you a packet with a ton of questions and diagrams, you’d fill it out and turn it in and fuck around the venue for a while before your next event. Simple.
Until Northmont Invitational.
We got a Wright State professor involved after he had heard about the event, and he was super pumped to help out. My partner and I read over out binders and cheat sheets, trying to cram as much brain shit into our minds as possible before walking in.
The doors opened. We walked in. And the smell was like being hit by a train.
I’d never smelled formaldehyde before. It made me incredibly nauseous, and I honestly couldn’t figure out what it was or where the smell was coming from. I used my shirt as a makeshift dust mask and sat at a pair of desks.
The professor walked to the front of the room and explained. “Okay, your test is comprised of 60 questions. 40 are listed in your packets, for the other 20, there will be 3 minute rotations at the front of the room.”
Rotations? For what?
And then he lifted the towels off the desks at the front of the room.
I had never seen organs outside of a body in real life. I’d seen movie gore, and I’d read anatomy books religiously for the past two yeas, but there’s something incredibly shocking about seeing your first organs. Especially when they’re laid out on cafeteria lunch trays.
There were three trays: the first featured no more than a brain with a few of the cranial nerves and the eye mechanisms. The second was a brain with no nerves, sliced in half to reveal the internal mechanisms at the hemisphere division line. The cut looked fresh. Ventricles still dripped fluid. The final tray featured a spinal cord, slit at both ends in order to fray out the cord and show the texture of the nervous system. Throughout all three trays was a ton of color coded pushpins with little masking tape labels.
My initial reaction was a solid combination of “HOLY SHIT WHAT THE FUCK” and something along the lines of “THIS IS THE COOLEST THING I’VE EVER SEEN.”
My team wasn’t supposed to go up to the trays for a while, so we sat and filled out our packet. I was steadily growing more and more nervous about going up to the trays, and the smell was starting to seep through my shirt.
And then we were called up. Tray one. Brain.
I bent down to fill out the packet, and my face was inches away from a legitimate human brain. Inches. I could have stuck out my tongue and it would have touched. And that’s when the real panic set in.
But then I realized, oh god, oh god. This is a person’s brain. An actual person thought with this. I can’t vomit on this.
So I swallowed it. And, as we rotated through those three trays, me trying to mentally block out the smell of death and formaldehyde and making sure not to let my mouth open up too much, other than to discuss answers with my partner, for fear that I wouldn’t be able to catch my barf before it came up, I managed to swallow another seven times.
By the time we were done with the test, my mind was swimming, I was gagging against the burning in my mouth and throat, and tears were starting to pool in my eyes.
My mom, who was one of the photographers at the event, happened to come in as my partner and I left, and she actually had heard about the live specimens. She was starting to ask if we thought the event was cool when she noticed my partner and I were blanched white. I was sweating, I started taking in giant gasps of clean (well, “clean,” we were at Northmont Middle School) air, and I sat against a locker for ten minutes or so to get myself together.
I found out later that the professor was one of the leaders of the anatomical gift department at Wright State. I also found out that he was gonna be the event moderator for a solid percentage of the rest of the year.
Looking back, I realize my first live specimen test was one of the coolest moments of my life, but 13-year-old Ashby was a bit too busy trying not to puke onto a person’s neurological system to appreciate that.