A Feast for the Senses (Ben Chin-Yee)

They say smell is the sense most linked to memory
But I doubt this stench of formaldehyde will help me to remember
The path of cranial nerve III, or the branches of the celiac artery
The origin and insertion of the flexor digiti minimi? I cannot recall…

In our visual world, smell the neglected sense
The primitive modality, sending spikes through my limbic system,
Arousing fear, disgust… even hunger?
In these first weeks, we are explorers of a new and rich olfactory space
The evocative smell of autumn: the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,’
We spend in sterile labs, inhaling formalin, human flesh and feces
My dissecting partner’s shampoo—herbal essences?—gives me brief relief.

Weeks have passed and my clothes are thoroughly imbued
My lab coat is greasier than a fast-food worker’s uniform
But visual feedback has regained control, overcoming my visceral response
I notice your tattoos and silicon breasts
I hold your heart in my hands—what were its desires, hopes and dreams?
How many drinks passed through your liver?
Or cigarettes inhaled into your tar-filled lungs?
I stare into my first patient’s hollow orbits and am filled with wonder, and gratitude

Medicine’s oldest ritual, the rite of passage, is a feast for the senses
And every time I’m hit with a waft of formalin,
I enjoy a quiet moment of nostalgia


Ben: Thank you Mathura!

Mathura: Ben, this is such a beautifully written and thought-provoking piece! Smell is often considered to be just an unpleasant side effect of the anatomy lab, but I love how you explore the richness and personal meanings it can have for people. The line “we are explorers of a new and rich olfactory space” got me thinking about how smell might play a role in medicine/the patient experience more broadly and to what extent medical practice as a whole is multisensory. For example, looking for fetor hepaticus on physical exam, the characteristic smell of antiseptic in a hospital and what kinds of visceral responses it evokes for patients, the smells and tastes of different medications, what it might mean to lose one’s ability to smell and taste while undergoing chemotherapy.

I also really admired the line, “I stare into my first patient’s hollow orbits and am filled with wonder, and/gratitude.” For me, there was a strong resonance between the “orbits” of the eye and “orbits” in the celestial, astronomical sense of the word (as in “orbit” of a planet), capturing how this simple act of looking may be part of something much larger, of forming a human connection with your first patient and looking forward to the journey ahead. Thank you for sharing!! 🙂


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