I survived anatomy… It feels so good to write that sentence. Maybe my former friends will allow me to associate with them once again, now that I don’t perpetually smell like formaldehyde and latex gloves. Medical students, doctors, physician assistants, and others who take human anatomy have varying opinions on how enjoyable the course was, but every person agrees it is not a class they will soon forget.
After the completion of the course, we held a student-led anatomy vigil in order to honor and pay our respects to those who had so selflessly willed their bodies to allow us the rare privilege to learn the intricacies of the human body.
Anatomy is a class that is tied with a certain degree of anxiety for every student. The first day the anatomy professors tried to qualm our fears as best they could. It was at this point that they told us we would meet our first patient. The truth is, it really didn’t matter what they said, we are all uneasy. Some of us were the excited kind of uneasy, and some of us were just plain terrified. As we left the lecture hall, a large group of second year medical students were lined up on both sides of the hallway with streamers, drums, kazoos, and confetti. The rite of passage had begun.
On that first day, nobody passed out (though there were a few that needed to sit down and take a breather or step outside for fresh air) and we all learned something about ourselves. As we left lab, most of us were wondering who our donor was, what they enjoyed, who their family was, etc. As time went on and tests forced us to forget our fears, we all became more comfortable in the lab and reached a certain level of desensitization, something that is a necessary quality in a doctor (note: understand I only mean to certain degree). Attending this vigil allowed us to bring our peers back to reality and ensure that we all remembered how deeply, intimately human an endeavor we went through. We again pondered who these mysterious, magnificent individuals were.
Now that we had completed the course, we knew so much about them, but so little at the same time. Now that those thousands of facts had been memorized, now that each one of us were well aware of what a pterygopalatine fossa is and what can be found within it, we were brought back to the real world: The world where we had to not only know the science, but profoundly understand the humanity of medicine. Both the gravity of the course and the burden of the privilege we were awarded came rushing back.
I will never forget the impact this class has had on me, never forget the sacrifices made by the donors, nor will I forget the impact of this vigil. As one of my classmates, Maurilio Garcia-Gil, eloquently stated during the vigil, this individual was not our first patient, but our perpetual patient. “Whenever I imagine a patient’s complaint or how to repair it, it will be her muscle groups, her bones, her nerves and arteries I visualize. I will see all my patients through the lens of her gift. Through this, she contributed to the journeys of all my patients.”
I could not agree with him more. What I know of the human body I know from a 70 year old African-American man who died of pulmonary arrest. I know more about his body than I do about my own. I learned of his life through the physical, but will never get to know him in the capacity I would have liked to. Anatomy taught us literally thousands of terms. It created a map in each one of our heads.
These facts and this atlas are invaluable and will be repeatedly accessed when treating future patients. However, I honestly think that learning how easy it is to get caught in the moment, to become wrapped up in the science, and to forget to devote myself to compassion is more important than any other fact I learned (by a long shot). In this way, the man who served as my guide throughout my anatomy course, and has provided me with the atlas that medicine is built upon has also taught me perhaps the most important fact I will learn in my medical career. He was not just my first patient. He was, and will continue to be, my perpetual patient.
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