The other day, while scouring my computer for a lost document, I stumbled upon a speech I had given for my medical school’s anatomy donor recognition ceremony. It was an event held every fall, right after anatomy, during which our school’s first-year students showed their appreciation to the friends and families whose loved ones donated their bodies to science so that we could better learn the anatomy of the body. It has been a couple years since, so I decided to take another look at it. Here’s what I had to say:
Hello everyone, my name is Michael Tarkey and I, like my fellow classmates here today, had the privilege of setting out on the daunting task of learning the many intricate ways of the human body. Thanks to the gift of your loved ones, my classmates and I were able to gain an incredible amount of knowledge that will serve as a foundation for us as physicians and health care providers. But, I would like to suggest that there is something greater that we learned during our time in class beyond pure knowledge of the human body.
If I say the words “Netter’s Atlas” here, I can guarantee that most of my fellow classmates will start to feel a strange combination of anxiety and confusion, as well as a slight, but measurable, rise in blood pressure. For those who don’t know, the Netter’s Atlas is the gold standard in textbooks when it comes to learning the human body. It is widely used and respected because it very clearly maps out and labels in different colors the anatomy of our body. But, as many of us quickly realized in our classes, the human body is never laid out like a road map. We easily and often became lost in the seemingly chaotic way that our bodies are set up. We realized, though, over time that through our mistakes, our willingness to try new things and our patience that we were able to discover the things that make us tick. We discovered an underlying order beneath the chaos, an order that is both elegant and purposeful.
I would like to ask everyone to think back on yourself and your loved ones that we are remembering today. Think back to the times that they and we made mistakes, had to try new things and had to practice patience. I would argue that it is when we do these things that we begin to discover, little by little, something deeper. We began to uncover an equally elegant and purposeful truth in life. We begin to see that the acts of giving, compassion, charity and ultimately love are truly what give order and beauty to our lives. Your loved ones got it; they found that underlying truth hidden in the craziness that can be life sometimes. How do I know that they got it? They understood it because they gave one of the greatest gifts of all, themselves, to help better me, my classmates and this world.
So what can we do with this gift so freely given by your loved ones? Yes, we can hold on to as much knowledge as we can of the human body to help better every patient we see. This is something we must do and will do. But I suggest another way to try to repay this gift. What greater way is there to honor them than to learn by their example? If all we take away from our courses is purely knowledge and nothing more, we have failed you and your loved ones. We must take away a knowledge enriched with compassion, selflessness and always, love. Your loved ones gave of themselves to tell us this. It is with these things that we can begin to discover what your loved ones discovered; that is, there is underlying purpose and beauty in this world, just as we discovered the purpose and beauty of the human body. We can hope to do no more with our lives than to try to follow in their example; we must learn to give of ourselves and become giving physicians and more importantly, giving people.
Looking back at my reflection from my first year of medical school, I see how little I knew about medicine at the time. Not to say that now, as a third-year medical student, I’m close to mastering medicine, but after a year on the wards, I’ve come to see how my perspective has certainly changed. Did I live up to my promise as a first-year student to practice a medicine “enriched with compassion, selflessness and always, love”? After a year on the wards, does the medicine I see practiced daily live up to these expectations I had of it?
Short answer: no. I launched into third year, without regard to its effects on me. Somewhere between the long hours of working followed by the long hours of studying, I certainly lost sight of my ideals. I began to feel the staggering weight of trying to be intellectually and emotionally available to patients. It started off with small lapses, like cutting off a rambling patient’s tangential explanation of why they don’t manage their blood sugars so that I could get the information I needed to understand their condition. This eventually turned into, on the worst of days, mentally “checking out” while a patient was speaking because on the most hectic of days, I needed that moment to just zone out. I became frustrated and disappointed, but quickly realized that by taking care of my own mental wellbeing, I could be the type of medical student who was emotionally and mentally ready to live up to those ideals I envisioned in my first year.
But, how did the medicine I saw practiced around me in the hospital stack up to my idealized standards? It’d be easy to be cynical and think it doesn’t. The medical system of a hospital has many pieces, with physicians spread so thin throughout it that it can be hard to see the fruits of compassion from a single person. As medical students, we often don’t even see most of the journey that patient’s make while in the hospital, from nursing visits to lab draws, and from imaging to rehab. How can we learn to give care with compassion or recognize its importance if we are only a small piece in the patient’s care? Where are the long, deep chats seen in Grey’s Anatomy or the images of the physician holding the concerned patient’s hand? I’ve heard some classmates say that we need more education in showing compassion and empathy; we need to be taught how to relate to our patients. Maybe. But is that really something that can be taught? I’ve heard other classmates say that physicians are diagnosticians who need to acknowledge their limits. Basically, stick to the science of medicine and defer empathy to other staff members and family. If that is the case, then what differentiates us from a well-built computer?
Perhaps a middle road lies between these different realities. This is where I think back to the men and women who donated their bodies to science for our first year anatomy classes. They didn’t accompany me on my journey after anatomy, but their one decision to give this gift left me with a sense of compassion, selflessness and love that traveled with me past the anatomy lab. Even if we are only are a small role in a patient’s recovery, a single moment of compassion can transcend that solitary encounter and follow that patient on their road to recovery. Recognizing the importance of compassion in the smallest, every day encounters with patients is living up to the lessons we learned by the men and women in our anatomy labs. An attending physician once told me that regardless of what we do when we see a patient, to always lay hands on the patient. It reminds the patient that despite how tired, impatient or grumpy we may seem, we care about them. Maybe the decision to show this one act of compassion will travel with them throughout their time in the hospital. Is this all that I should do to try to live up to my first year ideals? Of course not. But it sure seems like a good place to start.