I wish I remember how I stumbled upon this incredible text, but I honestly don’t. Nonetheless, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that in many ways Dr. Christine Montross’ Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab got me through the first year of medical school.
I’ve been very open about how anatomy lab was and still is one of the most transformative and difficult experiences of my life, both as a subject of study and emotionally. When I first began studying anatomy, I did recognize the great privilege it was to study the human body from this perspective. I was almost unspeakably grateful to those who donated their bodies so that my colleagues and I could become better healers. But when we first started dissections in October of last year, I did not understand how integral this experience was for me as a physician in training. I did not understand why I was learning about how to ‘save lives’ by studying the dead. I felt traumatized. Every time I stepped into anatomy lab, I simultaneously felt grateful, sad and anxious. Everything felt so unnatural. I knew rationally that the cadavers felt no pain during our dissections but that did not prevent me from wincing at the sound of each rib cracking or a saw cutting through bone.
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This piece is the second in my series about my experience in anatomy lab during my first year of medical school. The first piece in this series can be found here.
I wrote both these pieces as a means to reflect on and normalize what I was feeling on the first day of anatomy lab and during a dissection I found to be particularly difficult, emotionally. Now that I’m finished with my first year of medical school, I look back and I’m even more grateful to have had this experience. Death, ironically, will always be a part of life but being in this field we have to work even harder to healthily cope with this reality. While the point of anatomy lab was to teach us about the human body in a tangible way, all the cadavers were the ultimate teachers about both life and death. From them, I learned what a heart, my heart one day and likely the hearts of future patients, looks like when it’s no longer beating. From them, I felt the weight of a cirrhotic liver. From them, I saw what a ‘smoker’s lung’ actually looks like. But from them, I also learned the muscles I use to type this sentence. They are the reason I can feign x-ray vision and imagine my muscles, tendons and bones working together as I hit each key. They are the reason I marvel at all my nieces and nephews as they grow and learn to walk and speak and think. They are the template for every patient I will see in my career as a physician.
It’s been just over a month since we finished anatomy lab and said goodbye to our cadavers. Thank you, great teachers, for your final sacrifice. I hope that you have finally found rest and ‘burst into light.’
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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
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A few years ago my husband, then fiancé, gave me the book What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine by Danielle Ofri, MD. I had been on this journey to becoming a physician for some time and had received wonderful advice and education from my undergraduate professors and mentors about a career in medicine. However, being the emotional person I am, I was unsettled by the lack of advice regarding dealing with the emotional difficulties of the field. My husband had previously read this book and thought it would help me navigate the next step of my path to becoming a physician and he was definitely right.
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