When I was a young girl, weekends were always for writing. I would get up early and sit with my dad as he had his coffee and I would type away, dreaming up characters and plot lines. I can’t get that weekend mindset out of my head years later: I still wake up on these lazy mornings ready to contemplate the world. This weekend, more than other weekends, I really need to reflect, to delve into the writing I’ve neglected and pour out my thoughts onto the keys.
This weekend marks the end of the seven weeks of human anatomy, and any immersion that intense requires a lot of debriefing. For seven weeks I have woken up in the middle of the night arguing with myself over the location of structures, I have spent early mornings writing anatomical terms to prepare myself for a long day of learning, and I have stayed up as long as my eyes could remain open to review the hundreds of structures and terms I had learned that day. I am exhausted, but I am also excited, because for the first time in my academic career, I truly feel like I am on my way to becoming the physician I am meant to be.
I will admit that from the accounts I had heard before, I expected the anatomy course to be the worst seven weeks of my life. Really think about it for a minute: spending a minimum of two hours a day in a smelly lab looking at dead bodies. This sounds like many people’s definition of a nightmare! Yet I did this, willingly, joyfully even, for seven weeks.
Did I really just say joyfully? I’ll be the first to tell you that this course was undeniably difficult. Before this course I thought that in order to do well, you have to eat, sleep, and breathe anatomy. In many ways this is true: I spent many meals eating over my books (ew), had interrupted sleep due to anatomical terms stuck in my head (flexor digiti minimi!!!), and thought about the course as often as I took a breath. However, I have learned during this course, that there is still time to do more than just anatomy, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time. And I learned it the hard way: by spending every moment doing anatomy, missing important aspects of real life, and not getting the results I wanted. When I finally let myself put down the books at night when I was tired and wanted to sit on my couch and relax, I started doing better in school, not worse. When I spent more time in my kitchen cooking than speeding through the drive-thru, I started doing better in school. When I got more sleep and relaxed more, I started doing better at school. Somewhere around week three or four, something clicked. I began to realize that I needed to work harder for shorter periods of time and I could get the same results (or even better!) on my assessments. I began to realize that the “hardest class” could really just be a ramp-up course to prepare me for long days, sleepless nights, and infinite amounts of material to learn in a day.
What I can learn in a day now is infinitely more than I could learn in a day seven weeks ago. I have exceeded my own expectations of what I can do, and I think this course has opened up a whole new way of learning for me. Tomorrow, I will have to figure out how to study for a new course. I am excited for the new challenge, but I will go forward with the grace and respect for medicine that I have learned through human anatomy.
Before medical school, I expected the anatomy lab to be a gruesome and miserable place. For some of my classmates, I think it still is. But to me, the anatomy lab is the site of my awakening. I have awoken to the person I need to be, to the level of skill and dedication this field requires, and to the narrow line between life and death that we tread each day.
Our school has many unique processes for this course that aren’t like other schools. One of the neat differences is that we use willed bodies donated to science for our labs, and prior to beginning the lab, we meet with the families of those who have donated their bodies to our education. This sounds like the worst idea in the world at first. But at the same time, I welcomed this bizarre tradition, and I really enjoyed learning my donor’s history and what sacrifice my donor made for me. With knowledge of the person who lived within the body under the shroud, I began to contemplate my perceptions of mortality at the same time as I searched for structures.
At first, it was hard for me to think about the body in front of me as once being a live person, but before I knew it, this mindset became second nature. I referred to my donor by name, and did the same for the donors my friends worked with. I wanted to learn the back-stories; I wanted to know the history behind the person who chose to give me immense knowledge about the human body. I found that in learning about the body in death, I learned a great deal about life. As I sit here trying to think of the right words to say, I find myself speechless. I think this is what religious conversion might feel like: a powerful feeling so intense that words are too fleeting to describe the transformation. What I do know is that I am different because of the anatomy lab. I know more about medicine, I know more of what I am capable of, and I know, however strange it may seem, another body more intimately than my own. And there are a lot of weird feelings that come with that responsibility. I know that as a physician I will hear and see things that few people will. People are going to share with me the most intimate details of their lives, their deepest fears and their strangest and scariest symptoms.
I never expected to be so changed by this process. And they don’t tell you before anatomy that you’re going to like it. Maybe those who go before us want us all to experience it for ourselves. But I think I need to share my story, less for you and maybe more for myself, so that I can finally put to words these feelings that have blossomed over the last two months. Being a part of medicine is a gift, and I learned that because of a person who gave their body for me.
On Friday as I went into the lab for the last time to gather my materials, I stood at my table and soaked in the holy moment: just me and my donor and the place where I truly felt alive in my profession for the first time. There I prayed, for my team, for my instructors, for my donor, and for my journey. But mostly I prayed thanksgiving for the gift I was given, to be able to participate in medicine, and for the many people who paved the way for me. If you read my last piece, you know that I have really begun to understand how important others are to my experience and my success in medical school. Through this course, I have learned that without others, I would know nothing. Without my donor, I would have only a superficial knowledge of the body, but with my donor’s gift, I was able to learn about life and death in a way that will prepare me for years of helping others lightly tread the line between this life and the next.