“Love you! Don’t step in front of a Mack truck!” At our house, that affectionate admonition replaces the more typical,”Have a nice day, Dear,” as we dash out the door in the morning. The origins of that odd farewell are rooted in the physiology class that my husband and I endured as students at the University of Louisville School of Medicine way back in 1975. We didn’t know one another then, but the late Dr. Thomas Calhoun put us both through our paces as we struggled to master the complex workings of the human body.
With his long white coat and dark-rimmed spectacles, Dr. Calhoun was the very model of an academic lecturer. His gruff professorial demeanor masked a quick wit and a dark sense of humor, so we listened closely for the zingers that he delivered without changing his inflection. Most of the problem scenarios that he pitched to us began, “So you walk out your front door, and you step in front of a Mack truck….” To this day, whenever I face an oncoming Mack truck (and I saw one yesterday!), I give a little shudder.
Why didn’t Dr. Calhoun just begin his scenarios with, “So the patient is hemorrhaging…” or “Your patient is dehydrated…”? I suspect that he understood the power of narrative. Writing for theguardian.com, Ed Cooke noted:
“Stories, then, are at the root of our ability to communicate and understand what’s going on around us. Because understanding and memory are intertwined we shouldn’t be surprised that they are also very powerful mnemonic devices.”
Most of my medical knowledge is attached to some sort of story, whether an illustration like Dr. Calhoun’s murderous Mack truck or a patient’s struggle with a difficult condition. That informs my teaching as well. My students probably think that I’m just rambling as I share some of my medical mishaps and victories, but I hope that every now and then these stories find a foothold in their memories.
A final example from Dr. Calhoun’s class that Ken and I both recall: Why does drinking beer lead to a trip to the potty? “It increases your blood volume. It suppresses antidiuretic hormone. It doesn’t have to change color.” Forty years on, we remember laughing that day, and we remember the lesson.