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Finding family in unexpected places

Missing family while she's away at medical school, Stanford student Lauren Joseph stumbled across an unexpected reminder of people dear to her heart.

Since the day I left for college -- years ago -- I've carried guilt for being far away, for missing out on life at home. Now in my second year of medical school, I remind myself that everything my family worked for gave me the opportunity to have a dream and pursue that dream.

And sometimes, in unexpected ways, my family comes to me.

Last Thursday, I finished a 13-week marathon of teaching clinical anatomy to first-year medical and physician assistant students. On the last day of dissection, I ran my gloved fingers over the logo-engraved plastic head blocks -- blocks we use to prop up the cadavers' heads during head and neck dissections. Leaning against the end of the donor's metal bed-table, I thought about the past four months of working with these curvy, white, plastic blocks, and I thought of my late grandmother, Nana.

Nana died during my last year of high school. I often think about what I would say if we could talk one more time. My heart aches whenever I wish I could tell her something. I got into college, Nana. I fell in love, Nana. Remember watching 'Grey's Anatomy' on Thursday nights when I was in seventh grade? You said I could have anything I worked for. I did it, Nana, I'm going to medical school.

Lauren Joseph with her Nana and Papa on the night of her high school ring ceremony
Lauren Joseph with her Nana and Papa on the night of her high school ring ceremony

Nana's death was -- and has been -- the greatest heartbreak of my life. When she died, I thought, this is what true love feels like, through tears and clammy palms, as I squeezed her fingers. Fingers which, until that moment, were always covered in chunky, colorful rings.

After she died, I replayed Nana's last labored words to me in the hospital, "You're going to do great things in this world, and I'm sorry I'm not going to be there to see it," she said.

On the first day of class this year -- dressed in blue scrubs, white lab coat and a spiffy name tag -- I feigned confidence in front of cadavers and nervous first-year students. Halfway through the class, as I surveyed the room to take in the moment, I noticed something. There were new plastic head blocks. I had liked the sturdy old wooden ones, and I wondered how the new ones would compare.

Later, while standing at the head of the faculty's table as they guided us through the next dissection, I got a closer look at one head block. Its company logo was etched into the plastic in large block letters: MORTECH. That looks familiar. I recognized the name of that mortuary manufacturing business. It was the very company that Nana and Papa built.

They worked hard all of their lives -- from managing gas stations, to operating a radiator shop for car repairs, to manufacturing BMX bike parts, to starting a refrigeration business for morgues. The company creates all kinds of morgue-specific products -- also including white plastic head blocks for cadaver dissections. 

When I saw those blocks in my Stanford anatomy lab, I almost couldn't believe it. In a circuitous turn of events, my dream to become a doctor landed me alongside the very products that allowed me to have this dream in the first place.

Nana wasn't here, but in a way she was. All of her life's work and the choices she'd made had woven her life together with mine, even years after her death. In a way, my longing to have Nana and family nearby for some of the most important moments of medical school was fulfilled.

Watching the students zip their donors' bags closed for the last time, I imagined the closing of another chapter of my life that Nana bore witness to, even though she's gone.

This Thanksgiving I'm more grateful than ever to be near my family and to know that everything they built and worked for led me to where I am. I wish I could say to Nana, "Thank you," and "One day, if I work hard enough, I can do the same for someone else."

Photos courtesy of Lauren Joseph

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