The human heart, fickle and fierce, is not unlike the pig heart; both are bound in delicate embroidery, both are a home with four main rooms. And so, in medical school, the cardiology unit begins with a dissection of ‘porcine pluck.’ The organ lays in a cold metal tray, with thin silver tools on either side – everything ready for our busy consumption. We wear sensible plastic outfits, and handle the porcine pluck beneath the bright white light of the anatomy lab. We are given a set of specific instructions – for cutting and peering and stripping and searing – but I struggle to focus on the task at gloved hand, and instead I wonder other things about Pig’s darling, dismembered heart.
I hear ‘porcine’ and imagine a creature shy and blushing; I hear ‘pluck’ and think of something musical; I consider ‘pig’ and remember Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web and suddenly wish for my own little web where I can write secret poetry for sweet, silent Pig. I look at the unmoving heart and feel sadly conscious of my own beating center: lub dub, it sings, lub dub! It calls out. My heart escapes from behind my rib cage, tumbles down my sleeve, and whispers close to the pluck: lub dub, lub dub! Pig, are you there? Pig, can you hear me? Lub dub? And of course, no response from the silent porcine pluck – no reassuring beat, no solacing sound, not a whimper, not a sigh.
What were Pig’s longings? What were Pig’s fears and dreams? Demons and desires? Who did Pig love? Who did Pig fear? What did Pig find most delicious; what pleased Pig more than anything else? What made that pluck sing? I hear the questions in my head and know that I sound like a crazy pig lady, but I can’t bear to look at that meal on that tray. It makes my head spin and it makes my heart sick. I feel overwhelmed by Pig’s sweet innocence and unbeknownst sacrifice. Never had a heart been so open to me that I could touch it, that I could hold it, that I could open it wide and read it closely and carefully like a little book.
I imagined that we students—all of our bodies circled earnestly ‘round that pluck—were standing in for Pig. In that moment, the pluck was our center of gravity, our rhythmic core – guiding and inspiring us, filling and forming us – nourishing us like all hearts so dedicatedly do.
Soon it was my turn to make a cut and feel around, and so metaphors filled my mind, soothing me like warm candle or hot drink. I wasn’t just slicing through a heart – the scalpel was a boat, the organ was a lake, and I was soaring through, parting waters, feeling breeze. I wasn’t only locating valves and finding flaps – I was counting all the folded corners of a well-worn, much-loved book. I wasn’t just running my fingers over chordae tendineae – I had opened a piano lid as someone played a song, and all the strings were dancing, moving to and fro. I traced the coronary-lines across the pluck, and so followed all the secret paths across an expanded, detailed map of Earth. And that darker, little atrium – it looked rather like the bird-shaped mole on my lover’s languid leg.
Before entering medical school, I was a literature student and I had spent the better part of my life reading stories, writing stories, and conjuring them up like meals to eat – this kept me alive and awake, full and breathing. I reflected on the small moments of my days in search of beauty, meaning, revelation, humor, sweetness, and healing. In class, we spoke of ideas, we talked about maybe’s, we spoke in what ifs, and why this and why not that. All things were metaphors, everything was thick with implication, connotation, and there were essential connections between this here fictional dialogue and that there larger discourse. It was our way of organizing and understanding humanity. I knew of hearts that beat like summer rain, fast and lush; I knew of hearts that shattered beneath a lover’s gaze, loud and sudden; I could speak of hearts that swelled with joy, that shrunk with fear, that grew quiet in the face of hatred but then grew loud with protest.
Hearts, to me, were abstract things. But on pig-pluck-day, the heart was suddenly, irrevocably, undeniably before me. It was no longer withheld, no longer tucked beneath its body-blanket. It was naked as ever, and I didn’t know how to connect. My mind buzzed with questions for the pig, longing to piece together a life-story. And I could only touch the organ by clothing it in friendly metaphors.
What then, was Pluck? Who then, was Pig? How then, should I dissect: with story, poem, or lab manual?
And so during that little first-month lab, I had somehow stumbled on a central inquiry, a most important question of medicine: can I find that poignant moment of intersection between art and science so that both Pig and I can still be whole? Can I process important information but also feel for Pig and feel with Pig? Can I imagine metaphor but also see Pig’s pluck in a raw and honest manner? Can I daydream defensively but also focus intently? And how many pig hearts will I break before I have some answers to these questions?
For now: thank you Pig, for your pluck – for your soft and lovely, precious, porcine heart.