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The first-year medical student’s quest: Remembering the life in lifelessness

anatomy-labBack in September, an Inside Stanford Medicine article featured my first-year medical school class on our first day of anatomy. It spoke of learning anatomy and having the privilege to work on real donors’ bodies as a “rite of passage,” something all medical students must do to really discover the human body.

We were all very excited, yet timid, on that first day of anatomy class, I remember. Afraid of cutting too deep or snipping something mistakenly, we proceeded with our first dissections very slowly and carefully. Little by little though, my classmates and I gained so much confidence, and soon, we were comfortable enough to make anatomy puns in the cadaver lab and laugh while performing our dissections.

Fast forward ten weeks: A classmate and I were logging in extra hours down in the anatomy lab late at night, studying for our practical final exam, during which we’d have to identify muscles, nerves, and vessels on prosections and full-body cadavers. After methodically explaining and identifying the different parts of the brachial plexus to my friend, making sure I didn’t miss anything, I reached into another bin for a hand prosection, and just as a pulled it out, I noticed something: The frail hand that I had selected sported pale pink fingernails!

I gasped, thinking about how I had plans with my roommate to have a girls’ night and paint our nails after finals were over. The chipped remains of this hand’s nail polish made the donor so much more human to me.

I realized that, over the span of the quarter, I had slowly become desensitized to the fact that the cadavers we worked on and learned from were once full of life, that they belonged to generous people who let their human bodies be subject to our poking and prodding so that we can one day heal others. I couldn’t believe how “normal” it had all become, this mechanical separation of muscles and identification of organs.

Staring down at the pale pink nail polish, I vowed not to let myself forget the humanity in all this “lifeless” work.

Soon, my first-year classmates and I will be starting the “head and neck” portion of our anatomy course. This means we’ll have to uncover and see the one part of our cadavers that I’ve been actively forcing myself not to think about: our donor’s face.

I’m not sure how I’ll come to terms with having to dissect away the most human part of a person. Thinking a few weeks ahead into the future, I have to admit, I’m very wary and anxious about it. Any one of my classmates who claims to be completely comfortable with this all would be lying.

Anatomy class brings us all face to face with our own mortality, and the mortality we’ll have to encounter during our careers. Right now, it’s hard to stomach, but I think that’s what makes this point in our medical school journey so pure and good: We’re all still so wide-eyed and naïve that we are still sensitive to death and can embrace it with compassion.

By this time next quarter, I know we’ll once again be spending late nights in the anatomy lab, desensitized to the smell of formaldehyde. What I hope we won’t be desensitized to is how human the cadavers are -- and how full of life those lifeless forms used to be.

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

Natasha Abadilla was born and raised in Hawaii, graduated from Stanford undergrad in 2014, and spent two years doing public health work in Kenya before returning to the Farm for med school. She is currently a first-year student who enjoys writing, cooking, eating desserts, running, and scrubbing into the OR. 

Photo courtesy of Stanford's Division of Clinical Anatomy

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