The story behind a cadaver: Fall down, get back up. Even after you’ve passed out

I was taught anatomy and physiology by a pediatrician-turned-professor who found in academia an opportunity to meld his love of medicine with a propensity for the performing arts. His lectures were scripted and theatrical, and he gifted a generation of students with an awe and understanding of the human body that would serve as the foundation for hundreds of medical careers. Because he was a physician, ours was one of the few undergraduate anatomy courses in the country allowed to have human cadavers. There were two every year — always named Spike and Becky. Legend has it that Becky was named after a student who passed out in every lab session during the first year they had cadavers. I don’t know the story behind Spike.

My undergrad is a small school with a close-knit community of alumni. We are generally excited to meet each other, so my husband (a med-peds resident) was delighted to learn that his ER attending for the day shared our alma mater. He described her as an excellent and confident provider who led and taught well. During their conversation, he discovered that she had also learned from our beloved anatomy professor.

“Oh, and this is interesting,” he added. “She was there the first year they had cadavers.”

I spun around and gaped at him. “What is her first name?” I breathed.

His eyes grew as he realized the weight of my question. “I’m not sure … but I think … it may have been Rebecca.”

In full disclosure, my husband never worked with her again, so I cannot promise you that he met the Becky of “Spike and Becky” fame. As with any proper legend, the mystery is half the fun. But I like to think that sometime in the early 1990s, Becky gained mastery of her vagus nerve. I like to think that she decided that she could stand — that she would stand — anywhere she wanted. I like to think that Becky decided that she wanted to stand at the head of the bed in trauma bay, making levelheaded and lifesaving decisions. And I like to think that my husband met Becky when she was standing exactly there.

The early years of medicine are a beatdown. The hours are long, the money is sparse, and the knowledge and skills that were so expensive to acquire never quite seem like enough. While the struggles of medical training are plenty, they are not unique to this field. There are a plethora of obstacles in every walk of life designed to knock us down: fear, tragedy, inadequacy, pride, addiction, or in Becky’s literal example, a glitchy vagus nerve.

But Becky wasn’t famous because she fainted. She’s famous because she fainted over and over again. She’s famous because every time she stood back up — and she showed back up — session after session, until she passed the class. Becky stood for something. She stood by a passion she felt called to, despite the challenges. She stood even after she failed, in the same way, multiple times. Becky stood to grow from her weaknesses, and she stood to turn the defeat of that weakness into her legacy. So, if this season feels like a beatdown, maybe it’s the perfect time to find out what we stand for and to stand for it.

Rachel Matar is a physician assistant and a medical advisory board member, Lightning Bolt Solutions.

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