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Anatomy Lessons Learned
Medical student gives thanks for the people who donate their bodies so future doctors can learn about human anatomy.
by Katherine White


Photo by Andrew Campbell

The first time I ever saw a cadaver was on the day of my first medical school interview. I remember the laboratory vividly; silver tanks laid out in a grid spanning the room, and we, in a circle around the one open tank, waited as a first-year student pulled back the plastic sheet to expose her group’s cadaver.

What struck me first was the sense of relief that I didn’t swoon or become nauseated. It would have been a bad time to realize that I was too squeamish to go to medical school.

Another thing that impressed me was the idea of an anatomy closing ceremony; the student giving the tour mentioned that they held a ceremony at the culmination of the gross anatomy course to express gratitude to the people who had donated their bodies. This struck a chord with me, and at every interview at other medical schools, I asked if they held a closing ceremony at the end of gross anatomy. Perhaps this was an odd question to ask, but it became a small part of the checklist about each school that I kept in my head as I proceeded through the interview process.

This was probably why I volunteered almost immediately for the planning committee of the anatomy closing ceremony here at Northwestern when our anatomy lab director, assistant professor Larry Cochard, announced he was looking for interested students. Only after signing up did I learn that the purpose of the ceremony was twofold. Taking the form of student readings, musical pieces and a flower ceremony in which we learned our cadavers’ names for the first time, the ceremony was not only an expression of gratitude, it was also an opportunity for us to reflect on our personal experiences in the anatomy lab. It gave us a chance to remember who we were last fall when we first entered the lab and how what we did in the basement of the Tarry building may have changed us.

The fact that we know more about human anatomy than before we ever picked up a scalpel may be incidental to the experience itself. Some argue that the structures with which we become intimately familiar in lab could just as easily be gleaned from atlases and computer programs. While that may be true, anatomy lab is so much more than a sum of the structures that we commit to memory before exams: It is exposure to death; it is an illustration of mortality and of the shortcomings of medical science; it is a bonding experience among peers; and it is, like so many other experiences in the first year of medical school, an opportunity to get to know oneself on a deeper level.

Our cadaver was my teacher; she taught me what the sympathetic trunk looks like and how to recognize the branches of the internal iliac artery; she taught me the cranial nerves, never mind the mnemonic device we used to learn them. But most importantly, perhaps, she taught me the idea of selflessness.

After admission to medical school, which is by necessity an extremely conditional process based on MCAT scores agreeing with GPAs being shored up by letters of recommendation, the simple unconditional act of donating one’s body seems so incredible. Our cadaver didn’t once ask me what I got on the biological sciences section of the MCAT or how I had done in organic chemistry; she had an a priori faith in me. It was only after I had spent hours learning the structural lessons that our cadaver’s body had to offer that I realized that she was teaching us something much more profound than that: not just selflessness, but unconditional selflessness. As a medical student, this is a lesson I should not soon forget. I should learn it well and apply it to my interactions with patients and in my life.

It was when I stopped to say "thank you" that I realized exactly for what I was thankful. Even now, I feel as though someone needs to pinch me and wake me up from this dream of being at the school of my choice with such incredible people and opportunities to learn.

From that first glimpse of a cadaver to now, I feel as though I have at least been initiated into the process of learning how to become a physician. I only hope that as time demands become more stringent, I remain receptive to the implicit lessons and remember to take the time to express gratitude for those people and experiences that give a broader meaning to my medical education.

Katherine White of St. Louis studied English literature as an undergraduate at Washington University. Over the summer she participated in a summer externship with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

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