The bond between medical students and their cadavers

A letter from a medical student at the end of her gross anatomy course.

Dearest Walter,

The time we’ve spent together over the past few months has been wonderful, but I’m afraid it must come to an end.  We knew this day would come.  I must move on with my life, and you must move on, too.  We will never see each other again, but I will never forget you.  You have taught me so much, and I am eternally grateful.  I would never have made it through med school without you.

Many people do not understand the bond between medical students and their cadavers.  You are the one who taught me about the human body.  And whenever I think about the body, it will be yours that I see.  Your huge biceps, your leathered skin, your giant heart.  Your body still seemed so full of life, even though yours had already ended.  You still had so much to give, so many secrets yet to share, and you shared them with me.  You gave me your body – your complete self, and you didn’t even know me.  What a tremendous act of love.

I know things about you that you never even knew yourself, and yet I don’t even know your real name.  I don’t know where you lived or what you did.  I don’t know what your favorite color was.  I know so much about you, yet so little.

You were a hard worker.  Even after you were dead, you still had work to do.  I like to imagine that you were a farmer, and that’s why you had such impressive muscles.  I think maybe you were an arm-wresting champion.  It makes me laugh when I think about.  I know you were married.  I could see the indent left on your finger from a long lifetime wearing a ring.  I wonder if your wife is still alive.  I bet she misses you.  I hope she knows how much it means to me that she let me have you.  I hope you had kids, and maybe even a few grandkids.  I think you would have been a great grandpa.  I can picture you giving your grandchildren rides on your shoulders.  You had big shoulders.  I wonder if you ever saw the world.  Did you live here your whole life?  Was there anything left undone?  Did you have any regrets?  Why did you donate your body to me?  What would you say to me if you could?

Oh, Walter.  I hope you know how much I love you.  How grateful I am to you.  You are not forgotten.  You will live on.  Whenever I see a patient, you will be right there with me.  You will be in my mind, in my thoughts, and in my decisions.  Thousands of patients will benefit from my knowledge  - the knowledge I acquired from you.  You have been a teacher, a study partner, and a friend.

It feels like you are dying today.  Dying for real.  But you are not dying, are not dead, not really.  Goodbye, Walter.  Your work is done.  Rest in peace.

Emily Howard is a medical student who blogs at my first patient.

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  • Always Sick Chick

    I hope you continue to maintain such relationships with your living patients as you progress through your career. :)

  • Adriana

    I admire your dedication. Personally though the cadaver lab gives me terrible headaches thanks to the pervasive formaldehyde and chemical smell.

  • Suzi Q 38

    I tease my husband about donating my body once I die to the local teaching hospital under one condition: That I be able to donate it with a hand written letter from me.

    I would state the usual: Name, age, and what city I lived in when I died.

    I would also talk about my husband, children, and list my greatest accomplishments, both personal and professional. I would list my favorites:

    Colors, cars, pastimes, and hobbies. My favorite cuss word.

    How I loved to travel and did so as much as possible.

    I would tell them that I want them to learn why I died, so I won’t release my cause of death to them, unless they have no clue. I would submit my cause of death in a separate envelope, to be opened at a later date.
    Maybe I would enclose a gift card to Yogurtland or Starbucks for $10.00 as a prize for getting it right.

    I would tell them my daily habits, and my favorite foods and pass times.

    How much I exercised…my lowest BMI as and adult, and my highest BMI as an adult. I would list what conditions I had, what they felt like to me, and at what age they were discovered. I would list all my major medications.

    I would ask them to guess how many operations I have had and why.

    I would then say: Can you guess, given what you had discovered, and my family history why I have died?

    I will tell them who were my favorite doctors and why. i would write about what they did that made me think they were so good.

    I just think that it would be one last “teaching job” for me.

    Also donating your body to science means that you do not have to pay the funeral home for the embalming, casket, and cemetary.
    Since I am frugal, that fact appealed to me too.

    My husband thinks that I am nuts, but I will consider it.

    After all, it is my body.

  • Charlotte

    I enjoy traveling and do so frequently, and my daughters know to donate my body to the closest medical school. My request is attached to my identification and next-of-kin list.

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