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Remembering Our First Patients


On Friday, January 25, 2013, my classmates and I prepared for a ceremony of remembrance, a ceremony which would represent our sentiments of honor and solemn appreciation of the lives and selfless acts of donation to the medical field of the men and women who were our anatomical donors.

Over a nine-week course, we spent countless hours in the anatomy lab studying the human body from the inside out. Among our tools in mastering the complicated and vast material of anatomy were our professors, peers and anatomical atlases.

But by far, our most valuable and honored resource was our first patient.

The Indiana University School of Medicine at its Northwest campus in Gary, Indiana takes a unique approach to the study of anatomy. This approach is not often seen among medical schools, but has become a signature of our learning style and how we perceive the study of medicine.

Our institution teaches us that the anatomical donors in lab are not cadavers — they are our first patients. We refer to them by their name, or as he or she. We treat them as we would with a patient.

And in fact, they truly were our first patients. We use imaging software to view their bodies, the CTs and MRIs that correspond to what we are seeing internally: enlarged vessels, splenomegaly or a brain tumor that was a part of our first patient’s life.

The most surprising facet of our approach to anatomy lab is one that many people have never heard of. It is one that truly separates our experience from that of thousands of other medical students. We are involved in personally communicating with the family members of our anatomical donors.

One day, we will be physicians. To me, the first thing I remember is that as a physician, I will treat the person, not the body. Our role in medicine is often one of manipulation and treatment of the body but these techniques, chemicals, scans, and questions are nothing without the realization that our patients are not merely bodies with diseased states. They are people.

Having direct communication with the loved ones and family members of our first patients allows an insight into medicine that many of us do not see. We may have experienced it firsthand but rarely do we, as first-year medical students, see the real consequences of disease, of treatment, of health care, and of losing someone.

We learn that our donors were someone — mother, father, grandparent, or sibling — who coped with their diseases, lived their life through the symptoms, and whose passing deeply affected their loved ones. As physicians-in-training, we are expected to treat our patients — and their families — with dignity and respect.

Anatomy is challenging for medical students for many reasons, from the vastness of the coursework to the challenging anatomical terminology. By far, the most challenging moment is in accepting the fact that the human body is both the object of what we seek to ameliorate and what we must learn from — in life and in death.

Over fifty people attended the service of remembrance, including medical students, faculty, mentors, religious servicemen, and Army ROTC members of our campus who performed full military honors for two patients who were veterans of war. The service has been written about by the Associated Press, described in another article on Yahoo Health, and featured in television across the United States. This memorial service has been nationally recognized for its contribution to medical education. Furthermore, it has given understanding and respect to the families of our first patients whose lives and experiences exist not only in the memories of their loved ones but also now in 25 medical students and their medical futures.

Our ceremony was not for us. It was for our first patients — for the men and women whose selfless contribution to our education will never be forgotten  My classmates and I felt honored to be able to participate in such an amazing ceremony to honor our first patients and their families and to be a part of a unique approach to teaching anatomy, and paying respect, in medicine. As future physicians we may have thousands more of patients throughout our years of practice, but at the Indiana University School of Medicine at Northwest, we know that we will never forget our first patients.

Jennifer Evan Jennifer Evan (6 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Indiana University School of Medicine

Jennifer Evan is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University with a degree in liberal studies and a minor in chemistry. Having interests in a range of subjects, she enjoys participating in a variety of fields and experiences, from art and music, to writing and research. Her professional interests include international medicine and culture, while her academic passion is neurological studies. She is a member of the Indiana University School of Medicine Class of 2016.