There were seven of us standing around the table as the attending surgeon debrided the infected fascia. The vascular surgeon came in the room and barked at us to identify the structures before us. “What’s that artery?” he interrogated us. “I’ll give you a hint,” he said, “there’s a deep and a superficial.” We named the sural nerve and iliotibialis band and the great saphenous vein. As we clamored around the table, I suddenly thought of the Rembrandt painting: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
Allowing natural death gives the elderly and terminally ill the opportunity to control the end of their life, providing empowerment and a sense of peace during their time of uncertainty. This patient and her family’s forethought allowed us to provide medications to ease her pain and discomfort. When she closed her eyes for the last time, her body relaxed into the sheets, and I pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. Her family said goodbye, and then I began to perform post-mortem care.
Back in late March, I was a medical student in D.C. studying for exams. Today, I am a 23-year-old living with my parents again. Despite being in school 5+ hours away, my bedroom in upstate New York has become my new classroom. Being at home has its perks: I get food from my mom again, and I can wear pajamas all day if I wanted to (not that I actually do that). However, there are many things that don’t feel right about being a medical student who has no connection to the medical world right now.
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.
Blue latex feels slick against / my hands. I grip my instrument tightly, / surprised breath escaping me as / the scalpel quickly reveals
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.
Gloves first, then scalpel blades gathered, / instructor books and an atlas. / What yearning and churning my mind feels, / unsure what learning to expect.
Just as our vernacular has embraced the language of food to describe people, so too has the medical community used such language to describe disease.
While I knew little about these patients at the beginning of the day, I always started out knowing one very important fact: they were already dead.
This house was once full of life / Layers of warmth and affection. / A fireplace, the heart of all
It was not until our second semester of medical school that we started gross anatomy. Finally, I became that quintessential medical student walking home too tired to change out of my formaldehyde-tinged scrubs.
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.