Friday, January 06, 2006

Body of Knowledge

Having just finished our gross anatomy course, I have mixed feelings about the use of cadavers in medical training.

Before our final exam on Monday, we visited with our "lady" one last time. I know the scene sounds strange, even macabre, but there was a certain reverence there. Her body, I am sorry to admit, is only the tattered remains of what it once was. We have dissected much and it is difficult now to look at her and remember she once was a person.

The hardest day for our group (I work with two Jewish students and one deist) was when we uncovered her face. Before that day, we religiously assured her face was hidden behind the opaque cloth we use to cover the body. As we prepared to learn about the veins, arteries, nerves, and muscles of the face, however, we had to remove the cloth. It had previously been fairly easy to forget she had once been a person, but as we uncovered her countenance, we remembered with acute sorrow that this woman had once been alive.

I think her eyes were most haunting. The eyeballs had been preserved and, though they were robbed now of light, they still had an eerily human look to them. I realized then, as I had not before, this woman has a family, and probably friends. There was likely a funeral and someone certainly shed tears when she passed away. Indeed, this was all more poignant for me because my grandfather passed away in the same month I started my class.

Still, as we met in the lab the other day to say "goodbye" and to pay respects, we each took a turn audibly saying thank you. Odd? Perhaps. Incongruous? I'm not sure.

Certainly, there was something strange about trying to hallow that formaldehyde-soaked room. And yet, as I reflect on that experience, I cannot help but think her gift was not in vain. Now, when I look at someone play the piano, or run, or stand, or blink, or speak, my mind can see the muscles and blood flow and neurons working in a kind of miraculous harmony.

I have no doubt this will change the way I practice medicine. Whether I practice surgery or not, the lady who donated her body forever changed my manner of viewing human health and disease. I believe--or at least I hope--I will be both more empathetic and more skilled because of her posthoumous gift to me.

Indeed, with her gift she extended the legacy of her life by allowing us to become more capable of improving and extending the lives of others. I hope not inappropriately, we are thankful to her and the many others who have sacrificed for the betterment of those left here after the deceased pass away.


Blogger Kierkegaard said...

I cannot speak for you, to the extent that I have never experienced the sights, sounds, and smells that inhere to an anatomy lab in medical school. I would like to note, however, that I appreciated how you mentioned what such an experience with using cadavers meant to you, and how you forsee this impacting not only your increase in coutable rewards(e.g. furthering your knowledge of the human system to do well on your upcoming exams), but also those more intangeable increases in personal meaning, as you examine where you stand on certain moral issues. I imagine these moments of introspection in medical school are what will contribute to your sucess as a doctor.

I think that what you talked about--an integral part of med school training--is something that, when aired out as you did, is brave because the issue is value-laden, and you just put it out there on the table for all to see. It is exposed, letting others find out more about you, and your values, and I appreciate your willing vulnerability. I cannot imagine someone saying that the work you as students do is not a moral issue, or that one could go about the discussion without any preconceived values or biases: in other words, that someone could say, "that's irrelavent: this is science." I would argue that the world and those issues humankind brings to the table to discuss are value-laden.

It has amazed me how many of our decisions, albiet small, are inded value-laden, and the sooner I acknowledge the part morality plays in everyday life, I think we will have more opportunities to approximate empathy (i.e. to try to understand the other person's point of view, rather than arguing that their point of view doesn't matter). I submit that whenever I question whether or not something "matters," it is a moral decision, and--call me introspective and an overly analytical--when I have the chance to sit back and examine what something means to me, the more I learn and potentially grow from an experience that might otherwise have gone unnoticed or pushed aside in the heat of an argument.

What I'm trying to say, in my round-about way, is that I think you're corageous to post a value-laden topic, to put words to your feelings. And I think you will be a more empathetic physician because you're willing to examine such issues, and learn from them.

11:06 PM  
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