Ever since I was a little kid, I think I’ve been obsessed with words. I loved the idea of capturing a feeling in a sentence or describing a person so completely that you could see them right there in your mind. The perfect words in the perfect order, or at least that’s what I strove for. It was like an incantation to me. A spell that if assembled just right could let me take on the pain of someone else, or let me see the world, for that carefully constructed moment, through the eyes of another. It was a comforting idea—that I could drain away suffering with a pen and a few quiet moments—but it ultimately felt inadequate. I needed to do something more.
I carried this idea along with me as I strove toward medical school but over time I started to lose this obsession with beauty and art. As I gained the skills of my profession my mind grew more and more grounded in the concrete. Numbers, graphs, and achromatic images filled my imagination and the vocabulary of medicine codified the suffering of others into a bland ‘History of Present Illness’.
I think at first I was so enamored with these new words that I began to forget the older ones like harmony, clarity, peace. For some reason, I figured they didn’t apply. I was in a new world. This was medical school, and here I had to push all else aside so that I could learn every scrap of information that I could.
Throughout my time in anatomy, I spent most of my time searching for these clinical words. The right coronary artery gives two branches, the posterior interventricular and the marginal. The right lung holds 3 lobar bronchi. The head bone is connected to the neck bone. Stuff like that. But despite the volume of information, for the first time in med school, I began to find moments of beauty in the hours I spent with these donors.
In the lecture hall, it was so easy to depersonalize the images pasted into a PowerPoint, but in the anatomy lab, every structure took on a whole new depth of meaning. A heart was never just a collection of muscle and vasculature, it was the quiet reminder of a life lived for love and laughter. And when I looked into a Donor’s face I see the worn smile lines that time has etched so carefully.
As days wound on the mass of these brief moments weighed on me and demanded to be felt. Words like sacrifice and honor were always lingering on the tip of my tongue, and when I held a scalpel in my hand I froze for an instant each time to listen to the beating of my own heart as if it were praying for me.
One of the most poignant of these moments came a day before our first practical exam. It was morning, early as usual, before the sun had risen and before even the last of the night staff had left the hospital. I walked into the anatomy lab and the lights flickered on to greet me. Row upon row of silent beds were positioned sleepily in lines and I moved to my station towards the back. I opened up the canvas fitted sheet and pulled back the blanket that covered my donor. The blanket was soft, almost comforting, and though I had repeated this preparatory ritual dozens of times before, on this morning when I lifted off that sheet, I felt like I saw our donor anew.
I remember looking down at her hand. The nails were painted and, in the fluorescent light, they were sparkling. A few words popped into my head that I hadn’t used for a while—serine, tender, beautiful—and in the silence of the empty lab, for the first time in med school, I started to cry. I backed away from the table, afraid for a moment that my tears were somehow inappropriate. That morning, for the first time, I understood the gift that she had given me. I saw her as a patient in that moment. Lying on her plastic bed and wrapped in that strangely soft white blanket. I wondered if she had ever pictured herself here, with me, some kid trying to become a doctor, and I thought about all that she might have wanted in her life, and about the path that led her here. The clinical words that I had begun to cling to failed me at that moment. They couldn’t capture the grief of a loss, or the loneliness of death, or even the latent joy of waking up to another healthy morning. Alone in that sprawling room, I understood that the gift she had given could not be taken for granted. She gave of her body so that I could learn–in a way that was impossible to capture in any other way–and so that I could be given a chance to use that knowledge to help alleviate suffering in the future.
As I think back on my feelings that morning, I realize that in the glow of her soft martyrdom I finally found clarity. Though the specter of exams and burnout still hung over my head, I knew that the gift that these donors had given was not just a resource for learning, it was a torch that had been passed. They gave of body, so that one day when we cared for patients, we could give of our souls.