Donors are a medical student’s first teacher

I have fond memories of my first class in the anatomy laboratory. It was the Monday of my first week at medical school. I’d spent the last night pouring over my newly purchased anatomy textbooks. I wondered how I would ever appreciate the countless anatomical details of the human body. But as I stood around the benches with a body donor, everything changed. Suddenly all the organs, vessels and tissues that I’d read about in the textbooks were put into context in a way that would not have been possible without the generosity of a body donor.

I remember my teacher pointing out the appendix in one donor. It was a small finger-like organ arising from the bowel down in the lower right side of the abdomen. “You can’t always find it,” he told us. I remembered reading in a textbook that, although the appendix no longer served a function, it was still prone to becoming infected and causing fever, loss of appetite and a nasty abdominal pain.

I returned home with a renewed enthusiasm for learning. The donors had sparked a candle inside me that burned brightly into the night. I poured over the same textbooks but this time with a renewed vigor. These extraordinarily generous donors, were my first patients, my first teachers and a source of inspiration.

Three years later, I was driving along the highway past the shifting sands and spinifex grass, onto my first clinical placement with a general surgeon in rural Australia. On my first day, the surgeon led me to the emergency department. We had been called to see an 18-year-old man presenting with abdominal pain. The surgeon examined his abdomen and discovered an area of exquisite tenderness — right where I remember finding the appendix in the body donors years ago.

Hours later, I watched in awe as the surgeon performed an operation to remove his appendix. It was exactly where I expected it to be. And yet, its appearance bore no resemblance to the healthy appendixes I remembered from the body donors. This man’s appendix was large, red and angry. “No wonder he was in such pain,” I thought to myself. I remember seeing him the morning after his operation. He’d had a miraculous recovery. He sat upright in bed, eating breakfast, delighted when we told him he could go home.

And now, for my first three months as a doctor, I have been working as an intern on a surgical unit. Every day, I rise at the crack of dawn to attend our morning ward rounds. We see the patients who have presented to the emergency department overnight. Except that now it is me who is examining them, ordering pain relief, charting antibiotics and even assisting with their operations. And as I do, I am often reminded of the donors. They taught me to appreciate the human body and gave me the utmost respect for human life.

To the families and friends of the donors, it takes a lot to do what your loved ones have done. It takes bravery, conviction and a passion for educating the next generation of health professionals. On behalf of all past and present medical students, I thank them for the precious gift they have given us. Their legacy will forever remain within us as our first patients, our first teachers, and an eternal inspiration.

Adapted from a speech given at the Annual Memorial and Dedication Service at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Joshua Inglis is an intern who can be reached on Twitter @inglisjosh.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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