Burning flesh and other medicine related stenches

Today, I was in the breast OR assisting in some relatively clean and quick lumpectomies and mastectomies.  For me, it is a great learning opportunity, as I will see some similar women for consultation for radiation in the future.

During our last surgery, the smoke evaporator got plugged with a fat chunk and thus, when we used the cautery, the odor of burning flesh was a bit stronger than usual.  It was cleared quickly because people are not fans of operating with the burnt flesh smoke in the room… Kind of gross and like smoking can increase lung cancer risk with long term exposure.  All seemed to be well.

I left the OR and went back to my office to work on a presentation.  All I could smell was burning flesh.  The smell stuck with me until pretty much when I left work about 3 hours later.

It made me think of five other smells that really linger and are rather disgusting that we encounter in medicine.

Melena.  This is poop that contains partially digested blood.  It is black, tarry and has a stench that can be picked up for a disturbingly large radius.  It always smells that gross.  Once you smell it once, you always recognize it.

Formaldehyde.  The stuff may preserve dead bodies and organs and such, but I swear it also preserves your nose hairs.  When I was doing neuroanatomy, Patrick would complain that I came home smelling like brains.  When I was doing anatomy and pathology, I was relatively convinced that I always smelled formaldehyde.  I would question if I somehow got some on my hands or that I was eating it.  Everything smelled like formaldehyde. It was awful.

Anaerobes in pus.  There is something about bugs that don’t need oxygen to survive and the disgustingness of pus that is always extra nasty and distinct.  I was in on a surgery to clear out some liver and intrabdominal abscesses, one of which communicated with the large bowel (of note, this was one of the most disgusting surgeries I have ever been in).  When we broke into the first abscess a strange smell that was kind of like a cross between poop, onion soup and pus filled the room.  I smelled that abscess well into the night.

Birth.  It is not the worst smell by any means, but it is indeed distinct.  Every delivery I have been to has a similar smell that I have labeled as birth.  It isn’t too bad… Except at 4am when you are already nauseous from being tired.

Image from anguishedrepose.wordpress.com.

Unwashed, unkempt person.  Often this is by no fault of the person in question, but a result of significant disability with no help or poor social circumstances.  But, sometimes I have to get uncomfortably close to an individual who hasn’t bathed voluntarily or not for a long time.  This, mixed with stale cigarette smoke is another smell that seems to linger on me even after leaving the scene and stands out as a similar experience every time.

There are some odors that do not sit well with people.  I am pretty much certain these are odors that do not sit well with anyone, but are necessary evils when working in the hospital.

What are some smells you just can’t stand or that stick with you in a not welcome way? 

8 thoughts on “Burning flesh and other medicine related stenches

  1. Aaaaah such fond (not) memories! A while ago we had to drain a man’s pleural effusion, which turned out to be pus. Everybody went running, except for the poor doctor who was doing the drainage. And then the poor patient sniffed and asked, “What is that SMELL?”
    And the others… oh yeah. Especially unkempt-persons. They’re my worst.

    • Ugh. I always feel bad when something draining out of someone stinks and they realize it.
      One time, I was draining a giant sebaceous cyst (because it was too large and infected to remove) on a man’s back and the supervising doctor and the patient’s wife had to leave because the smell was so bad. Plus, the patient (and I) were gagging throughout from the smell. Poor guy.

  2. In Boston City Hospital ER, the rule is – NEVER TAKE OFF THE SHOES! In general, an admirable suggestion.

    The Japanese like a certain delicacy that is B. fragilis var. natto. It is a certain method for fermenting soybeans that makes a very nutritious product, which is eaten like sushi on rice.

    It is massively chock-full of nutrients, and not for doctors. I tried it and gagged, not because it was stinky, but it smells like clean surgical wound. For some reason, I can’t reconcile eating with smelling clean surgical wound. It’s not vile, like pus. Bacillus fragilis is a common human commensal and pathogen; var. natto is benign and nutritious. But whoo – the smell is too familiar. It also has a slick boogerish sliminess like hagfish, or snot.

    My hypothesis is that all doctors are buggy about one secreta. Snot’s mine. Stool I can handle, pus is okay; but snot’s repulsive.

    • The shoe thing is an admirable suggestion!
      I agree with your hypothesis on doctors being buggy about one secreta. Everyone seems to have their thing.

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