The pungent odor of formaldehyde permeates through the room and I can smell it through my mask and face shield. I am leaning over the body I am dissecting, trying to identify structures as the instructor appears before our tank, armed with a grading pen and a barrage of questions. As I identify the abdominal aorta, I notice the atherosclerotic plaques and dystrophic calcifications sticking out like shards of glass. According to the bulletin board across the hall, these were what killed the seventy-something year old man I was working on.
Weeks ago, I held his heart and his brain in my hands. I saw his left ventricular hypertrophy, his fatty organs, his rigid vessels. In many ways, he was my first patient. I learned about the machinery that let him experience the world, and yet, I knew little about who he was. I was told that in years prior, the school organized a ceremony where we would commemorate those who donated their bodies to medicine. This year, COVID-19 postponed those plans indefinitely. Thus, we became further removed from the people who inhabited the bodies we dissected.
The anatomy lab experience in a COVID-19 world felt strangely alien. I could hardly discern the faces of my classmates, most of whom I had interacted with exclusively on Zoom. We donned protective gear and maintained our distance to stop the spread of a virus that was suffocating people at the hospital just down the road. Save for a few cloaked smiles and awkward nods, I hardly interacted with my colleagues, many of whom I would see again on rotations. Despite this, the strangeness of the pandemic and the common experience of learning medicine while surrounded by disease drew us closer together.
Months ago, we took the Hippocratic Oath in our homes. I had on my favorite plaid pajamas during the ceremony. To this day, I have yet to master the art of looking at the right spot on my computer screen to simulate eye contact over video with a standardized patient. Our professors, some of whom were exhausted after unending shifts in the COVID wards, joined us virtually to teach, all while coping with complex grief at every turn.
But this is such a pivotal moment to enter medicine. The ongoing pandemic reminds us that our health care systems still have work to do. We are learning about the importance of public health messaging and the role of the government in health care delivery. Conversations about social justice remind us of the work that remains to ensure that all our patients have equal access to health care. Systemic issues continue to rear their ugly heads. We, students of a noble profession, must adapt to address them so we can fully engage with our patients.
My experiences in the anatomy lab remind me that even a complete understanding of anatomy and physiology cannot treat the whole person. We can memorize a person’s every anatomical detail and ailment but still fall short of understanding who they are. We must be intimately acquainted with the struggles – personal, social and structural – that our patients face. Without this knowledge, can we truly understand the experience of another human being?
COVID-19 has made this knowledge especially difficult to gather. Safety measures, while critical to limiting the spread of the virus, have strained our empathy like never before: masks obscure facial expressions, endless video calls dampen morale and timed encounters cause us to miss precious details of our patients’ experiences. The pandemic has been a harsh reminder of how crucial it is to care for our patients by seeing the world through their eyes.
Despite this immeasurable tragedy, COVID-19 taught me an important lesson. It is easy to get lost in the complexity of learning anatomy and physiology, but it is vital that we do not forget the social factors that define the human experience. We cannot afford to ignore the current conversations on systemic inequities and public health because they are inextricably linked to the people who will one day walk into our clinics. One day, the alien world that COVID-19 created will remain a bitter memory, and I am hopeful that we will take this opportunity to reflect on our profession and strive to make our world a little more human.