Sunday, February 18, 2007

Senior Seminar

I like them all, or at least most of them, but I like this one more than most, and today, as I watch her in the front of the auditorium, my heart swells with pride. She is pretty, but she should be beautiful. Her face and body are swollen, not grotesquely, but just a bit by the steroids she takes every day. She doesn't look fat, or even overweight, but just a bit puffy. She's nervous; I can tell because I know her, but the others in the audience don't know. She's practiced her talk just about the right amount. She's not reciting it, but she knows it well enough that she doesn't have to look much at the screen; she makes eye contact with the folks in the audience, and that helps her get through.

At the university where I teach, biology students are required to present a seminar during their senior year. They write a term paper on a topic of their choosing within the field, then deliver a twenty-minute talk in front of other students and faculty members. They obsess about it for their whole undergraduate careers—nobody not used to doing it likes to speak in public, and even though it's not true, students think that a botched Senior Seminar will mark them as incompetent for life. Most of the biology majors are pre-med, or pre-denistry, so that we on the faculty joke that seminar seems like "Disease of the Week." This girl's seminar is on Renal Failure, but she didn't pick it because she's planning on curing it some day. She has three kidneys—the crappy pair that she was born with, and a third that belonged to a teenager killed in a car accident before she got it.

There are more students in seminar than usual, and the girl's parents are there. Parents almost never come. This girl has lots of friends, and many have skipped other classes to be here. One of her closest friends makes sure to sit in the front row. They are an unlikely pair, she the African-American city girl and he the redneck country boy. When she mentions statistics on renal failure by race, she makes sure to look directly at him as she gives the figures for Caucasians. It's their little joke; he did the same thing last semester when he mentioned the statistics on cystic fibrosis in blacks. She was originally in the same seminar group as him, but she was unable to finish her seminar last semester. A string of infections, including a bout of pneumonia, forced her to take an incomplete, but she's finishing now.

This girl's not going to be a doctor. She'll complete her degree, and her GPA is going to be respectable, but a 3.00 won't get you into med school. Too many missed classes, too many nights unable to sleep, too many doctor's appointments. She missed an entire semester for the transplant, but was back in class the next semester, and every one since.

I hurt for her because she missed so closely being a doctor, but she doesn't seem to be depressed by it. There were plenty of other things to be depressed about, and I didn't know the half. During her talk she described the different types of dialysis, each one an exhausting, painful ordeal, and then let loose a fact I didn't know—kidney transplants don't usually last longer then seven or eight years, and it wasn't uncommon for them to quit after four or five. She was going to get to go through this again—if she was lucky.

At the end of the seminar, faculty members ask questions. She did a fine job, only stumbling on the chemical mechanics of the dialysis machine. The questions were impersonal, asking about the technical details of transplantation and such, until the last, when one man asked her if she knew what had caused her own kidney failure. No, the doctors had never quite figured out what had caused it—probably genetics, she said.

1 comment:

hipparchia said...

i didn't realize that the lifespan of a kidney transplant was so short. how scary. what a brave person she is.

it's true that a break in schooling for such an extraordinary circumstance doesn't have to ruin her chances at getting into med school, but [and i'm mostly just guessing here] they might take her health into account when deciding whether or not to admit her.