In the golden glow of a fall day, 104 first-year medical students parade out of the medical center carrying boxes of bones to aide our anatomy lab studies. The crates look suspiciously like instrument cases, perhaps the size of an alto saxophone, and it feels absurd to march back to our houses a la The Music Man, knowing all the while that we are bringing real live (well, dead) human skeletons into our living rooms, kitchens and coat closets.
Over the next four weeks, I will share a series of essays with you in which I tell some of those stories. This writing results from the work of a summer, supported by a summer research fellowship in Medical Humanities & Bioethics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, in which I interviewed nine first-year medical students, two third-year medical students, eight anatomy and medical humanities professors, two Anatomical Gift Program staff, three palliative care clinicians, two preregistered donors and one donor’s family member.
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.
Your body lay on the table, wrapped in shrouds / while robed students gathered around, / Your body lay on the table, skin leathery and strong, / I imagined what stories it bore, what paths it traveled along.
There lives a city only with pairs permitting. / Two lungs move together with love in the air / she takes his breath away when they’re a pair.
Medicine is a sacrifice. I knew this upon admittance into medical school. I did not know the sacrifice would be an erosion of my humanity.
It’s okay to feel in the cadaver lab. It’s what your first patient wanted for you.
The first time I saw a vertebra in medical school was not in anatomy lab. It was on a Thursday afternoon on the playground at Rolling Bends, a low-income housing community in West Atlanta. The smooth, white bony processes poked through the woodchips alongside broken glass and cigarette butts, almost, but not quite, unnoticeable.
The many tables corral him, / All the people surround him, / A trained doctor he is not, / Giving up, he hasn’t thought.
My mind wakes up in the morning / Sweating with facts / Preparing / For the archeological dig.