Anatomy lab is arguably the most famous rite of passage in medical school. It’s here that students yield a scalpel for the first time, where they learn the hundreds of muscles and bones and how intricately they come together. The experience is filled with both trepidation and excitement that constantly tiptoes the line between education and personal reckoning. It’s the divide between the sterile books of undergrad and the messier, nuanced world of medicine.

At Carle Illinois, anatomy begins one month into medical school. We stay with an anatomy donor throughout the course, performing weekly dissections that follow the Problem-Based Learning system blocks. For a 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.

The first thing I noticed about my group’s donor was a single perfectly manicured finger nail. “Seventy years old at time of passing,” I read on our first day of anatomy lab. “Heart failure.” That was all. No name, no profession, no fun facts or quirky hobbies. For the next year and a half, these sparse words remained our only glimpse into who our donors were in a former life.

In medical school, we have an odd relationship with our anatomy donors. We know some of their most intimate physical details but virtually none of their basic personal ones. I’ve run my fingers along the bumpy muscles inside his heart, cracked his ribs and felt the soft marrow ooze into an open thorax, but I don’t know if he died surrounded by people who loved him, or all alone.

This past week, our anatomy course drew to a close and our class reflected on our donors at the Anatomy Donor Appreciation Ceremony. In preparation for my contribution to the ceremony, I began to wonder: What is it that makes it such a sacrifice to donate our bodies to science? We all know the sacrifice is there—it lives in the hesitancy of families to donate their loved ones, in the reluctance of students to mar the body with the first cut—but it took me a whole year to put a finger on just what it is that makes donation so difficult.

I think it’s this: We spend our whole lives trying to define ourselves, to be known for our personality, our achievements, our wit. We work hard not to become a statistic or a lost face in the crowd. Yet our donors turn their bodies over to the hands of students who will never know them in the ways that matter most. The donors knew that by lending us their bodies they were relinquishing the identity they held onto so dearly in life. The least that we, as medical students, can do is preserve their dignity; that’s really all we have to offer in return.

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 nail polish on toes, the black marbled lungs, the atrophied kidneys. 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, 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.

October 28, 2019