At the start of the first week of the medical school at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, students get introduced to the anatomy lab, and by the end of the week, the first dissection occurs. Students study muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and other structures on dead bodies they dissect under the instruction of Dr. Abdo Jurjus, the anatomy course coordinator and instructor.
First-year medical students spend around 3 hours a day, 3 times a week in the lab dissecting and studying the human body, which accounts for over 140 hours during their first module. The time spent with the cadavers is highly enriching, and students get to learn countless lessons that can’t be taught in a lecture or through a video. Gross anatomy dissection is an essential step in the medical education, as it combines theoretical knowledge with practice, and most importantly, it gives the students a sense of how our bodies are actually built, how to deal with their first human patient, and how to respect him/her.
During the first lab experience, we can’t but feel the seriousness and stressfulness of the room. We are welcomed by the strong smell of formaldehyde and the scary scene of corpuses on the lab’s tables. The first few cuts, although technically the easiest, are the most grueling emotionally. After several times in the lab, we no longer notice the smell. The scene becomes a casual one, and the bodies become more and more familiar and easily handled. But beyond that, beyond memorizing the muscles, bones, vessels, and nerves, beyond knowing their structures and paths, and their variations and related diseases, we learn to respect them. These cadavers are our first patients. Each one of them had his/her own life that we know nothing about.
On December 7, 2016, and when the last anatomy lab of the first module of the faculty of medicine class of 2020 ended, we organized an event as a tribute to these cadavers. After all the time spent with them and the lessons we’ve learned, we really appreciate what these cadavers have given us. The event started by Dr. Jurjus’s advice on how important it is to take the lessons that we’ve learned, the scientific and the humanitarian aspect of the course, with us as future doctors.
As we treated our first patients respectively, he hoped that we’d stick to this kind of treatment further on. This is our first step in the medical field, and we have done it successfully. Then one of the class representatives, Jawad Barbar, thanked Dr. Jurjus and all the doctors who were helping us in the lab. He also emphasized how much we learned from this course, and wished everyone a good year. Flowers and candles were distributed beside each cadaver to commemorate their memory, and we stood there praying for the cadavers, each of us in his or her own way, and thanking them for their contributions. We also wrote ‘Thank you letters to the anonymous person who donated his/her body for our medical education.
The anatomy lab experience had its huge impact on all of us. It is one of these special courses that we got to learn more than the science, more than the knowledge, and more than the information. We learned the wisdom and the skill of dealing with and respecting others, even in their worst state.
I’ll end up by quoting a touching thank you letter written by my colleague addressing the cadavers: “You were my first and most important patient. I learned from you more than I could ever learn from a living person. Even though you are gone, your gifts have forever been passed on.”
Samer Bou Karroum is a medical student.
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