When Mr. B. laid forth our upcoming experiment in seventh-grade science class, I don't remember any of us expressing a moral objection to "pithing a frog."
"We don't want the frogs to feel any pain," he said. "But we want to dissect them while their hearts and lungs are still functioning, so we can really observe the working anatomy."
The procedure involves directing a straight pin into the spinal canal at the junction between the top cervical vertebrae and the base of the frog's skull. Once the pin reaches the spinal cord, the frog is supposed to experience spinal shock and become flaccid. Then the pin is inserted upwards into the cranial cavity and wiggled around. This effectively scrambles the poor frog's brain, destroying all higher brain function while leaving the brain stem activity intact.
The higher brain function of an amphibian may be debatable. In hindsight, though, it still seems like a barbaric experiment, one that I might consider objecting to if my own seventh grader brought home a permission request form. Maybe the actual pithing of the frog caused me so much distress that it's been permanently blocked from my memory—I don't recall if I stuck the pin into the frog's brain or if an ambitious lab partner performed the disturbing procedure.
What I do remember is being the only one to volunteer to take the frog home for the weekend and record his heart rate every few hours. It wasn't a difficult task; we'd sliced his chest cavity open during our dissection, rendering his beating heart clearly visible. He was pinned to a small tray and covered with a cheesecloth. I brought him home in a shoe box on a sparsely populated school bus, and placed him carefully on the coffee table in the living room.
I remember being surprised in the mornings that his heart was still beating. Initially, his heart rate was well over 100 beats per minute. By Sunday, it had dropped to about 50 beats per minute. His heart stopped on Sunday night.
I'm not sure if Mr. B's experiment inspired any of my classmates to enter the medical profession. I've certainly not heard that any of us went on to study neurology or neurosurgery. I became an RN in a trauma center ICU, but I don't attribute that career choice to the lesson plans of seventh-grade science class. In fact, I pretty much forgot about Mr. B. and the pithed frog for a number of years.
Occasionally I care for patients who've suffered such severe neurologic injuries that diagnostic tests are ordered to confirm brain death. Their reflexes are absent and their eyes are blank and frozen when I assess them with my penlight. I document vital signs while family members gaze at the cardiac monitors, falsely comforted by a beating heart and praying for a miracle.
Those patients and their grieving families haunt me while I'm driving home from work or when I'm spending time later with my own family. As I lie in bed at night, waiting for sleep to overcome my disquiet, I can't help but recall Mr. B's science class, where the entirety of the soul could escape on the head of a pin, and the beating heart was only science.