A classmate of mine committed suicide a few weeks ago. Though I’ve heard the harrowing statistics about physician and trainee suicide rates, to be honest, I never expected to personally encounter such a tragedy. The small classes at my medical school allow for a strong sense of community in which we all know each other, celebrate important life milestones, and happily reconnect when we’re together after clinical rotations scatter us throughout the hospital.
The first thing I notice are his boots. He’s still in his street clothes, having just been admitted. He looks thin, emaciated — his clothes hang off him, shirt collar drooping down from his neck like peeling paint. His boots, however, seem to fit him properly. They look warm, well-worn but sturdy, like they have weathered a hundred bitter winters and could withstand a hundred more. For some reason, this comforts me.
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.
In a hospital room lit blue / By the rays entering in from the clouded sun
I had developed a strong friendship with Ms. D during the rotation, and her passing became one of the first confrontations with grief that I encountered as a rising medical student.
He and I became friends and fell in love, in part over our shared love of running. I think he would be proud to see how quickly I cover the ground between the chemistry building, my house on campus and my car.
My first day in the morgue was a shock to the system — the smell of death, the sight of rigor mortis and the comfort of everyone around me with the task at hand. I thought my prior health care experience prepared me for this, but it clearly did not.
She was a woman in her early twenties accompanied by her husband. She was a first-time expecting mother at 19 weeks gestation with twins. They had received regular prenatal care and had been doing everything as the doctor had instructed to ensure a healthy pregnancy. She made this appointment because she felt something was off, her motherly instincts already keen.
In a profession where we are trained to fight death around any corner, any day, students need to not only understand how to handle death in a medical setting but also how to cope with the weight we bring upon ourselves in end-of-life situations. No matter our past experiences, no matter our clinical training or how academically prepared we think we may be, it can be traumatic to feel the burden of responsibility for the loss of a life.