Note: This is a post I wrote at the beginning of medical school last fall describing the experience I had in anatomy lab for the first day of medical school. Having just finished my first year, I felt it was appropriate to share.
The tension was visible in all my classmates faces. This was big and we knew it. We had all lifted the stainless steel covers, unzipped the tarpaulin bags, and revealed our cadaver for the year.
Our donor, an elderly lady, lay on the table in front of us, a shell of the life that came before. She was scarred, from the sun and the chores of life and with each sun spot and freckle I could see age, wisdom, and love. Looking at her worn hands and feet I couldn’t help but imagine where those feet had been, who those hands had touched, what work they had accomplished and the infinite influence her life had on the world around her. What knowledge did she possess that no one else did? What stories did she tell that will never be heard again?
It is an abstract concept to us who are young and healthy. I think of course I’ll be an organ donor, of course I’ll be a cadaver for the advancement of medical knowledge. But that inevitable finale seems so distant it is hard to grasp. I think about her decision to donate her body. When did it come? Was she old and aware of her fragility and finite moments remaining?
This is a big moment in the medical curriculum and is standard for all schools. And after experiencing the first day of it, I know exactly why. What we are privileged to be able to do through dissection provides extraordinary insight into the human body. We witness that the body, in all it’s grandness, is a machine, the most complex one we know of in the universe, but still an imperfect machine in need of regular maintenance. It shows the new medical student that disease has origins and can be treated. It makes tangible what previously seemed magical. A simple action such as lifting an arm would seem an impossible miracle to someone who knows only superficial anatomy. But for someone who knows the electrical wiring of the nervous system and the structural components of muscle fibers, who can see the muscles, feel the muscles, movement and all aspects of the human body become mechanical operations. Eventually it becomes simple, and in that, it becomes treatable.
I wish I could have met her, heard her story. I crave to know her name, to see a picture of her with a spouse or a child, or even grandchildren, when there was color in her skin and a smile on her face. I want to thank her for trusting us, and appreciating what we are doing and what her body means to us. I want to know the life that came before it, to know what caused her finale. But she knew, as well as I do now, that this curiosity and empathy won’t be granted from me to her, but will translate into a lifetime of practice in my career and life. She has transcended death in the most literal of ways to teach and transform the world, and for that I am forever grateful.