Seventy-nine years old. Cardiovascular disease. A person with whom I shared the most intimate relationship over the past four months was identified by just one line on an Excel spreadsheet. Our time together ended with no significant act of parting or thanks. In fact, my last session in the gross anatomy lab concluded when I ceremoniously threw away my faded, formaldehyde-stained scrubs. In the medical field, we view gross anatomy lab as a rite of passage and a form of initiation necessary to earn the respect of our elders and peers.
Many honor their cadaver with the designation of being their “first patient.” Yet, the term “patient” implies the receipt of some benefit in the form of treatment or improved well-being. Throughout our time together, I treated my cadaver with nothing but careful and thoughtful desecration. Just several months earlier I had promised to do no harm. Yet, as my inexperienced hands repeatedly sliced through layers of tissue, I could not help but feel like an intruder stealing something that was never meant to be mine.
I had come to know the course of my cadaver’s every nerve, the tone of every muscle and the trajectory of every vessel. In some ways, I knew her better than her most cherished loved ones. I knew her tonsils had been removed, most likely many decades prior. Had she been rewarded with a week off of school and unlimited ice cream like me? Her uterus remained intact, assuming a retroverted position in her pelvic cavity. Did she have children and were those children now raising children of their own? Her left ventricle was profoundly thickened and her heart encompassed the majority of her thoracic cavity. Did she have loved ones who were still mourning the loss of the person now lying in front of me? Did she regret prolonging their grief so that I, an utter stranger, might benefit from her final and perhaps most profound gift?
I had hoped to honor my donor and find answers to these lingering questions at our school’s annual Ceremony of Remembrance. This lesser-known second rite of passage is traditionally held at the end of the semester to bring closure for both the families of donors and students. While thoughtful and sincere, the event remains less heralded and discussed, possibly because even the brightest of us are unable to fully grasp the tremendous sacrifice made by donors and their loved ones.
Though current events in the United States and around the globe have suspended this event and others, one thing remains certain. As future practitioners of medicine, long removed from the countless hours spent in the cold, windowless anatomy lab, we will owe the very foundation of our daily practice to our cadavers. They will perhaps forever remain our most dedicated and selfless teachers. We are eternally indebted to the individuals who gave their entire physical being so that we might comprehend the complexity and wonder of the inner workings of the human body. I will never hear my donor’s voice or have the chance to personally thank her for her extraordinary sacrifice, but I will share her gift with every patient I encounter in hopes that I can make her proud.