Anatomy was a difficult experience for me because my mother died of lung cancer about half way through the course. Thinking of my mom was really painful, and I thought of her every time I walked into the anatomy lab. I associated the anatomy lab with death, and I associated death with my mother. Cutting into a human body is hard enough as it is; it was even harder when I felt as if I was cutting my own mother with every stroke of the scalpel.
So, as some sort of weird, macabre defense mechanism, I got into the habit of imagining my mom with me in the lab. I asked her if she thought the inside of the eye was cool, or if it was ok that I couldn't find the phrenic nerve. These imaginary conversations with my dead mother were the way I sorted out all my feelings about anatomy. It's important to reflect on anatomy lab, because anatomy lab is very complicated, psychologically speaking. For example, it's all right to makes jokes in lab, because jokes make this difficult thing easier, but joke too much, or in the wrong way, and you've crossed the line into disrespect. On a particularly rough day, it's all right to step out for a moment, but step out too much and you've wasting the gift that the donor has given you. Preparation the night before lab is critical to getting the most out of the experience, but everyone needs some time to relax as well. I think each person found his or her own balance, and my mom helped me find mine.
Was I being respectful enough? Did I appreciate the gift I had been given? These are the questions I struggled with the most.
Some days, I think my mom would have been proud of me. We took a moment of silence before we uncovered the cadaver's face, and were methodical and careful to make sure we saw every cranial nerve when we dissected the brain. But other days my mom might have been more disappointed in me. We were less thorough in the abdomen, and sometimes didn't really find the vessels or nerves we were looking for. I'd like to think it was usually because we didn't have enough time, but sometimes, to be honest, we just wanted to get out of lab.
Donating one's body to an anatomy lab is a grand act of generosity, and it requires a lot of faith. The donors must have sincerely believed that we, as students, were going to make the most of their gifts. Some of the things we had to do to the bodies were grotesque and awful. The only reason we muster the courage to cut a human head in half, or peel a cadaver's skin off is the ardent belief that the knowledge we gain from dissection is so precious that it outweighs the violation inherent in cutting up someone else's body.
So I'd first like to offer an apology to all the donors. Some days were worse than others, and on those days I didn't appreciate the awesome gift I was given quite as much as I should have. I'm sorry. I hope you would have been satisfied that I tried my best. I'd also like to say thank you, not just for your body, but for the tremendous trust you vested in me. You obviously believed I'd be a better doctor because of your gift. I look forward to vindicating your faith.