In medical school, we are often told upon entering the cadaver lab that the bodies in front of us should be treated as our first patients. For most of my colleagues, this is largely rhetorical as while we should obviously respect our cadavers—most physicians hope to never see a patient in the morgue again. As a pathology resident, especially one starting his career with two months of autopsy, I am among the few who sees his anatomy cadaver as truly one of his first “patients.” In this post, I wish to share my experiences on autopsy.
Autopsy was very much the key rotation I was dreading most, but I quickly came to develop an unexpected enthusiasm for the work. Much of this may be traced to having a wonderful and supportive senior resident my first month as well as the delightful team of pathology assistants, but I also appreciated the melding of a standardized approach with the potential for surprising findings. If any aspect of the work early on bothered me, it was my own early struggles with anatomic orientation. The other major surprise, after being continually told how different pathology training would be from the rest of medicine, was the centrality of skills such as chart view, awareness of the pharmacopeia, and engaging with people going through difficult times. Building on this, the usefulness of my bioethics training in considering autopsy consents was another unexpected preparation for the rotation. Finally, the full extent of tasks which constitute autopsy, evisceration, dictation, consents, and the preliminary and final reports were an excellent education with which to start residency.
Having gone through the rotation, I have come to regret my vociferous approach in explaining that autopsy is not the sole or even primary duty of the pathologist. With my current insight, I should have emphasized its vital role as part of the cosmos of pathology training while explaining the true breadth of the field. For those interested in pathology yet concerned about autopsy, I hope this has somewhat put your concerns at ease.