Let’s travel back in time, to my first few months of medical school. Here’s a snapshot of the early days of a medical student’s training.
Sept.17, 2003 – 1:40 a.m.
Going to bed – but before I do, I figure I should write some “last words”. No, I’m not about to die some grisly death (God forbid!), rather I feel like tomorrow morning (this morning!) is truly a new day. At 9:30 a.m. I walk into my first Gross Anatomy lab of med school. Today in our first anatomy lecture, our professors came in in their white lab coats and Dr. Miller put up an overhead that read(ish):
“Welcome to Anatomy – the real medical school”.
Oh, the drama of it! All the hype, the movies, ER, House of God – the stories of all the intrepid souls before! (Totally meant to be read with sarcasm)
Seriously though – I suppose meeting my first cadaver will be a life-changing moment. Not that I haven’t seen death before – bodies torn apart, first on TV and then on Jaffa Street and Bus #20 in Jerusalem. I saw a man in Haifa who’d landed 4 flights down from where he’d started. Then came my patient lying dying in ambulance #60 under my hands – closing his eyes that just stayed open.
So meeting an embalmed corpse in 7.5 hours shouldn’t really be that bad.
But then why can’t I sleep?
Sept. 17, 2003, evening
I’ve decided to name my cadaver Salma – like Shalom, but as our individual is a woman a female name is necessary. Shalom is peace, rest, completion – the woman our cadaver once held inside is gone, hopefully to a quiet and restful place – her soul is at peace. And her body was left here for us – a shell, a whole home for a now departed existence.
Faced with dissecting a dead human being, we joked and laughed about stupidities. A bunch of freaked out medical students, trying subconsciously to joke death away. Perhaps if we giggle, death will pass us by because laughter belongs to the living. In a room of 48 dead people and 200 live ones, we stood and tried to keep a handle on our own fears.
In the shower just now I thought about the food I had just eaten for dinner. Then I flashed back to the fatty tissue I held between finger and scalpel today, and realized something. That mushy yellow stuff represents a life – a life of eating. Did our woman enjoy festive meals with family? Picnics on the water with her lover and children? Maybe she ate a chocolate-covered strawberry, or a cone of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream on a hot summer day. And what did I do with all of her life, her nourishment, her stored energy and warmth? I cut it off as fast as possible to expose the beautifully striated muscle beneath.
But is that so wrong in itself? Perhaps in life no one knew her inner strength – yet today I discovered the fan-shaped and strikingly fine pectoralis minor. A smaller muscle overshadowed by her larger counterpart, pectoralis major. And working lower down towards the back, a buried treasure of serratus anterior. 8 lengths of fibrous, strong muscle waiting for discovery.
I know how fanciful this all sounds – but truthfully I had the most wonderful experience this morning.
I walked to class, nervous and a little nauseous, with 5 others from my class. It was a beautiful sunny walk until we entered Strathcona (our building) – there the sunshine couldn’t follow. Upstairs, everyone was getting out their equipment and donning their white lab coats. I was somewhat disoriented, but excited.
Entering the Gross Anatomy lab for the first time, all I saw was a sea of white. White coats – and then green shrouds covering almost 50 cadavers atop dissecting tables. A huge room, a bucket and a sponge beneath each table, long sinks, closed circuit TV to follow the lab talks, and the smell of embalming fluid.
The sound of nerves permeated the room. Honestly, if nerves could be heard, they were screaming this morning. But we all hid it well, no one fainted that I know of.
I don’t feel that we gave our woman enough dignity or respect today. I want to ask her permission or thank her, express my gratitude for the gift of her body to study. I feel that Salma has given me an immeasurable present by allowing me to use her to learn medicine. I want to learn all I can from her body – take from this year everything I will need for later on. By giving me herself to discover, she has not only helped me realize my dreams, she has also saved every life I will one day save. Her hands will give mine strength and my eyes will see anatomy with the clarity of hers.
Life has definitely shifted. Something new is beginning.
When I walked across the grassy Reservoir today, the sun was brighter and the grass was softer. Life was suddenly bigger – a door opened today.
Today I really, finally, feel like a medical student. Today, finally, I am grateful.