The power and beauty of writing rest in a process of active narrative formation. The act of expression helps us make sense of what happened, integrate this into our sense of self, and clarify our values that will influence our next steps. Conveniently, our expression serves as a record of both identity and narrative formation, giving us a glimpse of ourselves more intimately than we typically take time for.
Instead, I was worried that medicine would consume me only to regurgitate me as a mere collection of cells and systems – just like those I would be expected to regurgitate on the test. I was worried that the demands of knowing it all would make me believe that I could know it all, that there is nothing in the spaces between what we know. I was worried that bathing in science would make me stop believing in art.
I often joke about how worthless my art history studies were, but I never mean it. The truth is that my training in the humanities, while being unconventional for medicine, has prepared me to be a better physician and clinician.
It was 5 p.m. on a Thursday and I had just finished my first preceptorship session with my fourth-year medical student preceptor. That afternoon was one of many firsts, as it was also the first time I conducted a patient interview. My first-ever patient was a middle-aged woman in the emergency room talking to me through Zoom. I remember introducing myself nervously, stuttering on the few syllables that make up my name, and then asking what brought her to the hospital.
Our illness narrative, the COVID narrative, is about so much more than regaining health (though I acknowledge that for those afflicted by the disease, overcoming the debilitating circumstances may be more than can even be hoped for). Returning to Frank’s ideas, our narrative is about rediscovering the voice that was stolen by forces beyond our control.
This feeling of loss and subsequent reflection revealed to me something fundamental about how I experience time in my own life. As I depart the anatomy lab, I stand on the shores of time’s river and gaze into the clear water’s surface. In it, I see a reflection of growth and of internal transformation — a reflection not of who I was but of who I have become. I emerge not only learned in anatomy but also with insight into the impact that individuals can have on one another.
On the first day of anatomy, we were reminded that this course was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and that we were privileged to be experiencing it. For those of us first-year medical students who might not pursue surgery nor experience physically interacting with and entering the human body again outside of surgical clerkships, the professors said this would be an intense time. We would peer into the spaces and structures that — on some level — make up every human being.
I am sitting in school / but I am also thinking of you. / Yes, I do / wonder how consciousness / wraps round and round / this hunk of meat, / how chunks of flesh / sustain your metaphysical feat.
I no longer feel alone the way that I did the first few weeks of dissections, because now I recognize that my peers were sectioned off at their tables also worried that they were losing their sensitivity, that they weren’t good enough to belong, and they didn’t know how to cut into a person. I wish that I had known what my classmates were thinking and feeling during the anatomy course.
Why would someone choose to donate their body to medical education? We have a dishonorable history in medicine of illicitly sourcing cadavers for dissection: robbing corpses from graves, murdering people for their bodies and salvaging the unclaimed dead from city hospitals and morgues. Today, we call the bodies we learn from “donors” instead of “cadavers” to honor their autonomy and personhood, their choice to be in the room.
It is the day before the first anatomy lab for the first-year medical students, and a single professor walks alone, up and down rows of tables laden with 26 naked, embalmed bodies. He silently shares a few minutes with the donors, a private thank-you. Soon the donors will be covered in white sheets, and the students will tentatively spill through the locked wooden doors of the labs, a rush of anticipation, teamwork, questions and learning.
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.