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Medical School, In and Out of Anatomy Lab


Commentator Joe Wright has finished three years of medical school. Like most medical students, he took an anatomy class during his first year that consisted partly of dissecting a cadaver. This last year he spent most of his time out of the classroom working in hospitals and clinics, and he returned to the anatomy lab for a small elective course.


In the first weeks of medical school, we learned anatomy for the first time standing together over dead people and opening up their bodies and looking inside. Anatomy class gave us our first view of the body's landscape and an introduction to medical language and it offered emotional lessons as well. To dissect a cadaver is to immerse oneself in the immutable fact of death.

Returning to anatomy class after my third year, much was the same. Just as before, small groups of students gathered around the same body each day, the same donor, our donor. And, of course, I was still reminded, sometimes in uncomfortable and even gruesome ways, of the simple fact of her death. But her death wasn't surprising or shocking to me this time. This time it was her suffering I had to face.

Every few days we found new clues to the illnesses and hospital beds that defined the end of her life. We knew right away that her death was not sudden. In death, she looked like she'd been truly sick. In death, she looked like people I've seen in hospital beds who made me catch my breath with worry. We could see immediately that she was in a hospital soon before she died. She probably died there. We could see where she'd had an IV line, where a needle had made her bleed. And we could see the marks of other medical efforts, although we couldn't know whether they helped or hurt, whether they gave her time that she appreciated or just extended her suffering. A pathologist came to visit the lab one day and, with the expertise of many autopsies, he told us that our donor was very likely in a bed on her back before she died. It was difficult for her to breathe during those last days.

When I was a first-year medical student, anatomy lab meant facing the physical fact of death. This year it meant facing another central fact of hospital life. For me now, it's not the dying that's hard to take. It's when the things we try beforehand don't work. Hospitals accomplish amazing feats for human health, and I'm proud of working in hospitals, but sometimes people in hospitals suffer and sometimes people in hospitals get sicker and then sometimes they die. In hospitals people get poked and prodded, their privacy invaded, their bodily integrity violated, their desire to rest always interrupted. Sometimes despite all of that, they become even more sick. And each day we spent with our donor, we had to face that paradox. We could see the marks of our colleagues' interventions all over her, and yet she had very likely suffered and she had died. Still, despite everything, somehow she believed in medicine and in medical students. Still, she literally gave her body to us. Her gift to us was not only her anatomy, but also, up to the end and beyond, her trust.

SIEGEL: Joe Wright is a student at Harvard Medical School.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Wright