anatomy lab reflections part one: “Mr. Williams”

This is the first in a two-part series of reflections on my time in the anatomy lab during my first year in medical school. It was written after my first day in anatomy lab and reading it even after all this time, and having finished my first year, I can still feel everything I felt on that first day. I’ve had quite a love-hate relationship with the anatomy course this past year but reflecting back now, I know that it has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I can say with full confidence that it will allow me to become a better healer in the future.

To those who donated their bodies so we could learn to become better healers: thank you for this selfless and final sacrifice. You have all been the best teachers about both life and death. And for that, I will always be grateful and indebted to you. Thank you.

Now I am a student of medicine, a field with its own great paradoxes. The first of these I encountered in the anatomy class and is still one of the most powerful: that you begin to learn to heal the living by dismantling the dead.” – Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Dr. Christine Montross

Started anatomy lab today.

Older male. Died in the last year or so. Cause, we still have to figure out, but definitely due to some cardiac issues.

Since the end of last block I’ve been dreading this. Cutting into a dead person isn’t really a part of a normal educational experience. But I think we’ve all given up on normal. I got through the fear and emotions by constantly reminding myself how grateful I should be for this opportunity to learn. How humbling it is that these people donated their bodies so we could become better healers.

There are many things about the field of medicine that make it so strange. One of the employees of the School of Medicine is so freaked out by the cadavers, she wanted to take the day off the day they were delivered. And all of us… we voluntarily approach death. It’s an object of study for us. And when she tells us that she’s uncomfortable or afraid, we find that to be strange. But it’s not, is it? We’re the strange ones.

There were times in the ED the past few years when I witnessed death. The case was always different. The patient was, of course, always different. But my stomach sank every time. Multiple GSWs to the chest. T-boned in a car accident. Suicide. After each of these trauma runs, someone would declare the time of death and everyone would have to get back to work. Everyone’s head hung a little low for a while, but there were so many more, living patients waiting. Waiting to be cared for. Waiting to be healed. And every person in that hospital, helping these people and caring for them, was there because they chose to be.

What is it inside us that willingly sacrifices these pieces of our humanity? Why does it feel okay to approach death and loss and sadness in this way? Shouldn’t we be afraid? Shouldn’t we turn away? How do we all continue on?

I had a massive headache from all the formaldehyde. Came back to my apartment during lunch to take a shower but the water was shut off. Emergency repair for a leak. No water, no shower.

After lunch we had Doctoring, a class where we learn how to take patient histories in a compassionate, culturally sensitive and respectful way while still gathering all the information we need to provide competent care. Spent the morning studying the dead. Spending the afternoon learning to care for the living.

I was chosen to interview the standardized patient. I was exhausted. I still had this massive headache. My whole body ached. I chose the wrong day to quit drinking coffee. And then I walked in and none of that mattered anymore. I was speaking with the most charming 60 year old man, if not in the world then at least in the building. He was there with complaints of chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Now, this man did not actually have any complaints of chest tightness or shortness of breath. He’s an actor. But the patient that I was studying this morning in anatomy lab could’ve had this same story years ago. He could’ve walked into a doctor’s office, complaining of a chest pain that eventually took his life. Was he just as charming? Would I have enjoyed talking to this man just as much? What did he do for a living? Are there people out there who miss him and are still aching from his death?

Trekked back to my car. Tried to get out of this weird funk with a bar of ice cream and an episode of Gilmore Girls in bed. Didn’t help. Took a nap. Kinda helped. Took a really hot shower. Helped a lot.

And now I sit here trying to make sense of it all. And I’m probably not going to figure it out.

But I realize how much sweeter the air tastes in my lungs, knowing that they’re still able to breathe (especially after spending hours in a room full of formaldehyde). I realize that the reason I forgot all about my aches and distress while I was interviewing “Mr. Williams” is the same reason I’m able to stay when death approaches: because helping God’s people heal is all I want and have ever wanted to do with my life. It’s a scary thing to want. And in a lot of moments, some just this morning, I’ve wished I didn’t want this. I wish I could be happy doing something that didn’t break my heart so often. But those moments are few in comparison to the moments I am overwhelmed with gratefulness and humility for having this opportunity. For being surrounded by the most hard working, humble and dedicated peers. For having the support of so many wonderful physicians and mentors to guide us and cheer us on.

And even the scary moments are worth it. Because they remind me to hold on to the pieces of myself that still find death, while inevitable, to be sad, scary and difficult.

7 thoughts on “anatomy lab reflections part one: “Mr. Williams”

  1. Woo fellow medical student… US or UK or? I’ve followed, and would be honoured to hear your thoughts on some of my works on my blog. Keep writing and have a good day 🙂


    • I’m in the US. I’ll definitely check out your work when I have a chance. Thanks for the kind words. Hope you have a great day as well!


  2. I am an incoming MS1 this year and I am so nervous. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I find your posts to be inspiring and eye opening. Thank You


  3. This was an amazing reflection – thank you so much for sharing. You put into words what many others likely feel but may be unable to express. I’m graduating from medical school this weekend and am filled with so much gratitude that I get to help people live better lives – in sickness and in health, in life and in dying. Good luck with your Step 1 studying, you’ve got this!


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