With the passage of each summer’s day I am getting closer and closer to starting medical school, and with that the beginning of the rite of passage that is gross anatomy. Each Fall, first years across the country walk with a mixture of nervousness and excitement into a room full of covered cadavers and are introduced to the first person placed in their care – their “first patient.”
The men and women who donate their bodies to research entrust themselves to the care of future physicians and I feel a sense of responsibility to honor their act of selflessness.
As recently as a few months ago, the prospect of dissecting another human didn’t seem that daunting. I had been exposed to the anatomy lab long ago when I was in the 9th grade and my biology class toured the local medical school. I remember the experience well, and always viewed it positively. Rather than being grossed out as some of my classmates had been, I found the whole thing very exciting. But, there was one moment that gave me pause. It was when I noticed that the cadaver whose organs I had been holding and examining had purple finger nail polish on her nails. That simple touch of personality was a little jarring, and forced a perspective change from the abstract of looking at human anatomy to the reality of acknowledging that I was looking at the anatomy of a unique human person.
Since then, I have had the chance to visit the anatomy lab on a few occasions, and each time I left confident that I would handle the experience of dissection well. As it gets closer to the time when it will be my turn to pick up the scalpel, I have had a lot of time to imagine the experience. One of the things I have realized is that each time I have been in the lab before, the bodies had been largely dissected already. Except for the the purple nail polish, any traces of personhood had all been lost long before I was exposed to them. Therefore, I think it has always been easier for me to be somewhat detached from the emotions that might normally accompany seeing and touching a dead body.
A few weeks from now when I unzip the black body bag that protects the cadaver from the world, I won’t be seeing a skeleton with muscles and organs exposed. I’ll be seeing a person, with a face and looking decidedly human. I think it will be an emotional experience. I think I will be very conscious of their humanity. I won’t be working on an anatomy exhibit. I will be working on a person. The first person entrusting themselves to my care. And as the semester drags on and my hours in the lab mount, I hope that I will still retain a respect for the person who gave so much so I could learn.
John Marigliano is a medical student who blogs at The Old Med Student.