First day of medical school. Nervous students huddled around a white bag in a cold room under pale fluorescent light. We made small talk across this white bag, trying to dance around the fact that this bag did indeed contain the body of someone who used to be alive. My memories momentarily flickered to the first episode of Grey’s Anatomy, when all of the surgical interns nervously stand around in the OR awaiting further instructions. Granted, in my case, my patient was already deceased.
Our preceptor approached us with a comfortable smile on his face. He went over the basics of what we were to do in Structure Lab today. The first part seemed simple enough: examine the patient from head to toe and make basic observations. Was the patient tall or short? Body frame size? Any abnormal markings? What are the signs on his body that tell you someone cared about him? Slowly, but surely, we unzipped the body bag. We all braced ourselves for the shock of seeing him, but it was somewhat anti-climactic; a white sheet remained, laid over his body. However, the gentle outline of his body underneath the sheet was unmistakeable. We slowly began to lift the sheet, starting from his toes.
Where had these feet taken him in life? Hands. Did he hold any grandchildren in these hands? Chest. Had anyone cried into this chest? Neck. What words of wisdom did he leave behind for his family? We stopped momentarily at the neck, nervous about lifting the sheet past his face. One girl in the group chimed in and said that it would be disrespectful to ignore his face regardless of how nervous we were. She was right. Face. Who was this man? We spent forty-five minutes looking at him. Just taking it all in. I found myself unwilling to believe that this was a person laying before me. He looked like a person, but didn’t feel like one. His skin; cold and clammy underneath my gloved fingertips. His expression; neutral, eyes closed, mouth slightly ajar. His chest; speckled with patches of chest hair.
We reported our findings to our preceptor. He asked us how we were feeling. Nervous? Conflicted? Unsure? Uneasy? “When going through Structure Lab, make sure you always remember that he wanted to be here just as much as you did. As such, you must treat him with respect. He is your first patient. We receive so many physical examinations throughout our life, but this, with you all here, is his last one.”
I wish I could say that this moment was a breakthrough for me. I wish I left that lab feeling empowered and ready to dive head first into the field of medicine. But I didn’t and I think that’s okay. Finding my confidence and individual voice in medicine is something that I expect I’ll be doing during the entirety of my undergraduate medical education. Perhaps even my residency. Maybe even forever. However, what I did walk away with was a deep, sobering respect for the man whose body had lay before me.
If there is a heaven, I hope he’s up there, laughing at how nervous we are about his body and cheering us on as we administer his last physical exam.
Alex L. Qin