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A tribute to medical school

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category

Stanford is unique among medical schools in that it has funding set aside for every medical student to take a year off to do research – fully funded. What this means for me is that I was not only given permission to take time off from medical school for a significant project that I believed would impact my career, but I was also given a living stipend to do so. And so, I wrote a novel.

Yes, my novel is set in medical school. No, my novel is not autobiographical. And maybe, someday, it will be ready for your eyes. For now though, I thought I’d share a small snippet of the book that serves as my tribute to medical school — about the journey every medical student begins in the fall of their first year: dissecting the human body.

Tuesdays we had anatomy. Our dissection groups were different than our project groups, thankfully. My anatomy group had a set of Indian twins who talked constantly about Bollywood movies and an Asian MD/PhD student who left early to go to lab. Anatomy was by far the strangest, most interesting experience of the week.

We were assigned to the cadaver of a thin, elderly man who had died of pancreatic cancer. I suppose it was inevitable that we got used to the anatomy dungeon, with its pungent fumes that made people hungry as we cut into yellowed, stiff bodies. The smell of the formaldehyde solution that soaked his body and kept it from disintegrating followed me home. Our lifeless donor became familiar.

The twins didn’t like doing dissections and so it was often I that approached our cadaver, cutting, pealing, scraping, and breaking. I was glad he was old when he died, so that I could imagine he had lived a good, long life as my purple-gloved hands pulled muscles off his bones.

As hours disappeared in the anatomy dungeon, and I dug our team further and further into our donor’s body, I grew to like my teammates. The twins with their constant references to movies and family stories I would never know started making me laugh. Xiu especially was easy to work with, with his desire to get out of there, he loved that I loved to do the cutting.

I made study sheets for anatomy and turned it into a game with my little sister. We pretended it was like making coloring books together. She watched me sketch out the body parts I would be dissecting the following week and then she colored them in. Crayon yellow and neon green decorated the sketches of my donor’s heart.

The day we dissected the heart was my favorite. I wished I could tell my best friend about it, about what it felt like to wield a scalpel and sever the aorta, the thrill of pulling out a heart though it no longer beat.

Natalia Birgisson is between her second and third year of medical school. She is half Icelandic, half Venezuelan and grew up moving internationally before coming to Stanford for college.

Photo by spazchicken

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