Every year, when a Carle Illinois College of Medicine class completes their anatomy course, they hold a ceremony to honor the donors. Students write poetry or essays, share anatomy-related paintings, and play music. It is attended by the anatomy professor, students, and families of the donors. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the families have not attended recent ceremonies in person, but the art/writing has been printed into a booklet and shared with them.
This essay reflecting on her work in the anatomy lab was written by Valerie Chen, a member of the inaugural class at Carle Illinois. She enjoys healthcare policy, baking ugly cakes, and looking for little free libraries around town. She plans on pursuing residency in Ob/Gyn after graduation.
Anatomy lab is perhaps the most famous rite of passage in medical school. At Carle Illinois, it begins one month after we arrive, and for the next year and a half we don scrubs and our least-loved shoes to slice, saw, and chisel our way into understanding how the human body fits together. One of the cruder ironies in medicine is that we start our journey to becoming healers by first dismantling the body in anatomy lab. The first days always toe the line between education and moral reckoning as we cross unceremoniously from the world of sterile books into the messier realm of practiced medicine.
In medical school, we have an odd relationship with our anatomy donors. We know some of their most intimate physical details but almost none of their basic personal ones. I know he’s had open heart surgery because of the tangle of veins dipping in and out amid fine blue stitching. I’ve memorized the loops of blood vessels in the soles of his feet, felt the unhealed rib cracks that suggest CPR in his final moments. But I know almost nothing else: no name, no profession, no fun facts or quirky hobbies. I don’t know if he died surrounded by people who loved him, or all alone.
What is it that makes it such a sacrifice to donate our bodies to science? There’s no question that the sacrifice is there—it lives in our hesitancy to donate our own loved ones, in the reluctance of students to mar the body with the first cut. It’s just a body, we try to tell ourselves in lab. To say otherwise would make the task before us impossible. Yet perhaps this is the root of the sacrifice: the knowing loss of identity. We spend our lives trying to define ourselves, to be known for our personality, our achievements, our wit. But to become a donor requires relinquishing one’s body over to the nervous hands of students who will never know them in the ways that matter most. Hands yielding chisels, no less.
The beauty and struggle of learning anatomy is how it forces us to confront humanity in its messy, unpredictable glory. Structures are never quite where they’re supposed to be, fat has a knack of obscuring whatever we’re looking for, and our eyes burn from formaldehyde as we search. The moment we start seeing our donors as a bit too much like a science experiment, we’re jolted awake by something undeniably human: the chipped polish on toes, the black lungs of city life, the faded tattoo. Our donors are people, and boy are they good at reminding us.
It’s a lesson I hope we never forget. On our most tired days, I hope we remember the humanity in our patients even when it would be easier to see them as a list of numbers and diagnoses. I hope we never lose the part of us that cares to consider why one of our donors was so young and perfect when he came to us in anatomy lab, nor the part that remembers that the goal in medicine is not to be the one who remembers the most facts, but the one who can most effectively apply them in the service of others.
And I hope we remember the generosity of the donors who agreed to be the first bodies we touched in our education, who showed us the inlets and outlets of the heart as well as the important truth that a human is never just a body.
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