Monday, October 3, 2011

My First Patient

It didn't really happen in the beginning. The atmosphere of awe and mystery was too great. In fact we barely spoke a word those first few sessions. Half the class was buried behind their books while a few students clutched at their scalpels wildly. I made a point of being the first to place blade against cold leathery skin.

As time passed, however, familiarity cut through the tension much like our scalpels. The air of humility was replaced by the buzz of students busily working through their lessons. The quietness was interrupted by voices: some laughing, some arguing, and others carrying on everyday conversations.


The inappropriateness was subtle. One day it would be a classmate holding a dismembered limb up to his own body. Or occasionally a group of students would gather around a tank to stare or snicker at a particular body part.

although, on the outside, we each had come to terms with the gruesome act of dissecting the human body, a process of internal hardening had begun.

I disdained my classmates for their lack of taste. I cowered in the corner with the dissector pretending not to notice. Ever dour, I was building my own walls of protectionism but I chose a slightly less infantile route. I abandoned the scalpel and retreated behind the anatomy primer. I would direct the dissection from afar. My hands would not get dirty.


There were days in the anatomy lab that seemed to last forever. The students developed back and shoulder pain as they huddled over their tanks. Their were a number of finger sticks. We all carried our scars.

The physical discomfort paled in comparison to the emotional. We didn't like to talk about it. But sometimes, in the middle of a session, the whole mood of the room would change. We sat helplessly as the whirr of the bone saw cut into our cadavers pelvis. The fetid smell of singed bone filled our nostrils and we wanted to vomit.

We carefully dissected the genitals in pure silence. For some, it was the idea of physical discomfort that made them wince. For others, it was the total obliteration of all semblance of privacy. There is a certain amount of human dignity that we expect, even for the dead.


My hardest day in the lab came towards the end. As we entered the room, we were confronted with the most human of body parts...the face. I found myself handing the dissector to my tank mate and grabbing a scalpel. It was my first foray into cutting since early in the semester.

As I started to peal layers of skin, I thought about the lady whose body laid below my fingers. I knew so few details. Just some demographics.

As I came to the cheek muscles I wondered how they contracted to form a smile when her grandchild walk into the room. Or how here eyes, now dead and distant, would shine when she was happy. How her tear ducts would create moisture when she was sad.

As the hours passed my neck grew stiff. My joints grew tired. A tank mate had offered to take over but I resisted. I couldn't bare the idea of someone else doing such a horrific and personal task. Certainly not one of those who had previously made fun of the cadavers.

As I finished the dissection my nose began to run underneath my mask. My eyes were tearing. I excused my self and ran to the bathroom

By the time I returned the tanks were closed and the room was empty.


She was my first patient.

I tried to give her in death that which I couldn't provide in life. I attended to her with the sanctity and dignity necessary for such an intimate task. To me she was a person, not just a bundle of bones and tissue.

I left the gross anatomy lab that day with a promise.

I protected my patient in death.

For each person who walked through my exam room doors in the future, I would work equally hard...

to protect them in life.

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