Life and Death

As a first year medical student, my first exposure to death was in the Anatomy lab. Many articles have been written about the transformative and spiritual powers of being up to your elbows in dead bowels; I won’t retread that path.

I realized, the other day, as I was waiting for a vending machine to dispense my Orange Gatorade, that Anatomy was a profound experience with impermanence in a completely different way. Anatomy was my first inkling that, in Medical School as in life, all things end.

The course was so hard, so all-consuming and so physically demanding that it felt like my entire life boiled down to dissecting and identifying anatomical structures. Something was beautifully simple in the month before the Anatomy exam, though, that I still miss. I had a sense of precisely what I needed to learn and precisely how I was going to do it, and I sat down, and I did it. I didn’t finish the class with the highest exam score, but I improved about 15 points over my midterm exam, and I felt fluent in Anatomy (yes, it is a language that makes up for its lack of verbs and paucity of adjectives with treasure trove of nouns). I was able to teach. I taught. And then, one day, we had our final exam, and I haven’t touched a dead body since.

Cold turkey.

I walked by the anatomy lab the other day, on my way back from a meeting with one of the pathology attendings at University Hospital. I don’t even remember the combination to the door, much less the attachments for teres major. I left that part of myself in our cadaver’s body bag; incinerated or donated to some even lower form of medical research, or perhaps stored in a 55 gallon drum labelled “Human”.

I’m embarking on another voyage into the limitations of my own mind. This one will go farther than before, requiring more of myself than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ll exhaust myself, day in and day out, until one day it, too, will end. I’ll take that part of myself and leave it behind in a sterile testing center. And then I’ll move on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next.

I wonder if I could get those pieces back someday. I might like to know how much I knew, and forgot, and learned, and then forgot again. Because, that’s what medical school really is. A thousand-foot tall monument to forgetting. As Kundera wrote, it’s the same as remembering.



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