Lessons from the once living.


I don’t believe that anyone quite knows what they are getting themselves into when they apply to medical school. I would go so far as to say that we have no idea what is in store for us on our first days on campus. However, I do believe that there are two types of 1st year medical students.

Everyone knows the medical student stereotype. Type-A. Hard-working. Goal-oriented to a fault. And by the end of our 4 years? Cynical. But we don’t all start out that way. I remember the first few days of medical school quite clearly. In retrospect, the differences in personality in my class were already clearly apparent in those days.

Some 1st year medical students are wide-eyed and idealistic. I think the admissions process caters to that type of person in some small way. On that first day of med school, they still seem giddy at the fact that they’ve graduated from being the needlessly lofty ‘pre-medical’ hopeful to a full-fledged doctor-to-be. You’ll hear their anticipatory chatter a mile away.

Others seem different. Older, perhaps….or somehow just more world-weary. I’ve yet to discern whether they’ve seen more in life, or somehow inherently grasp the difficulties life may present us a little more fully. I felt that these types seemed to relate to patients much more easily some two years later….our first days on clinical rotations.

I wish I could say that I was the epitome of the latter type of student; hard eyed, resolute, and ready for the 4 years of hell that awaited me. Of course, I was nothing of the sort. I was likely the most naïve in my class of 191 future MDs. See, I’d somehow managed to make it past the doorstep of my medical school at the age of 17. I don’t think I will ever be able to say with conviction that starting medical school so young was either a wise or foolish decision. There are so many factors to consider. Regardless, those 4 years of my life represent the most significant maturation period of my short life. I like to think it started with a body.

I have read what other medical students and physicians have written regarding their experiences with the human body. Human anatomy has become one of medicines many rites of passage. Many recall the opportunity and responsibility of human cadaver dissection with an almost awe-like reverence. I have overheard medical students speak of their cadavers possessively. As we tease back the layers of tissue to expose what lies beyond the external world’s reach, we may come to feel more intimately acquainted with the person this body once represented than with anyone else in our lives.

I remember a different perspective, as well. Our medical school eased us into our dissections. We started on the back, with our body turned onto its stomach and its head covered with a black cloth. The smell of the formaldehyde used in the embalming process is coming back to me just by writing this. Several days later, as we progressed in our curriculum, I remember turning my body over to begin tackling the tangled thread which is the brachial plexus. It shocked me, how easily the body moved. There was no resistence….no moaning in protest over old, arthritic joints. My cadaver, the poor old man, did not widen his eyes in shock. All I was able to register was stiffness…stiffness and cold.

I contemplated my cadaver’s eyes, that day and many days afterward. Despite my mental probing, I remained disappointed. His organs told me of his habits. The cancer in his lung had run a long and dangerous course, and was no doubt the reason he lay before me. The blackened remains of the respiratory tissue spoke of his tobacco habit. As I learned the anatomy of his eyes, I came to knew that the discolorations of his corneas were called Arcus Senilis, and remained as a lonely testament to his chronic hyperlipidemia. That man’s eyes would teach me the basis of the field in which I hope to build a career. Despite all the secrets they divulged, they did not once tell me of their owner’s character. They spoke volumes of anatomy and hinted at physiology but remained mute to the dreams they once held. They kept in quiet solitude all of the aspirations, disappointments, and conclusions which represented a lifetimes worth of experience.

I toiled at the puzzle that was the human body over numerous sleepless nights, that year. I came to regard the human body as an incredibly complex machine. However, as has often been the case, medical school and medicine seemed to teach me just as much about the human condition as it did human disease.

One day I will pass away, and my body may too end up before a bright eyed, clueless, overly-eager 1st year medical student. They will learn just as much, if not more, from me. However, they will not know what type of person I was. They will not know which papers I published, which diseases I strove to cure, which ideals I held as convictions, which people I helped or which I hurt.

So you ask me, “What did you learn from your cadaver?” Well, human anatomy, of course.

But what did my cadaver teach me? That we are the sum total of our experiences. Perhaps, most of all, he taught me to cherish this heartbreakingly short experience we call life.

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Originally published at ajaypillai.wordpress.com on September 13, 2012.

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