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 twenty-six 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. But right now, no one makes a sound. There is no buzzing of saws, whirring of the suction machine, or gentle clinking of hemostats and Metzenbaum scissors against the metal tables, no nervous laughter, exclamations of discovery or confused mumblings.
In the golden glow of a fall day, one hundred four 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. Mine resides
propped against a bookshelf in my bedroom. I only open it during daylight hours, and only when
absolutely necessary. For the next four months, as we visit classmates in their homes and
encounter the subtle black or brown cases they’ve tucked into the corners of their lives, the bone
boxes will serve as a reminder of the secret club that we all have newly joined.
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.
In the neuro intensive care unit, I took part in a meeting with my team to update a family on the status of their loved one. It was my first time in this type of meeting, especially for a patient that I was directly involved in caring for. To our team of medical professionals, he is our 51-year-old male patient with a 45-pack-year smoking history, but to his family, he’s a son, a husband and a father.
so one day / i can translate to my patients / what my family missed.
Engaging strangers with kind eyes rather than tender faces, / Air hugs rather than warm embraces, / Family Zoom calls rather than face-to-face visits.