The smell of death was unmistakable. Its pungent odor snaked around corridors and made its way to the basement, where we stood in line to go up to the anatomy lab for the first time. My heart was racing. All along the walls were jars of human remains—brains, fetuses, organs. As we made our way through the anatomy library and finally came up to the second floor, I started feeling nauseous. Putting this feeling aside, I focused on why I was there.
I was there because I had been called to study one of the most ancient arts of times: medicine. It had taken me two years and four MCAT trials to finally get accepted to the ranks of my fellow medical students, all on a journey to become Physicians.
I pushed all the unpleasant feelings and thoughts aside, opened the door, and entered the anatomy lab.
All naked and exposed, pale and cold laying on tables. I closed my eyes for a moment. I instinctively held my breath for a moment, but quickly realizing I had to breathe, I surrendered to the foul odor.
There was a reason I was there. This was not the time to walk out. I opened my eyes. There must have been more than fifty bodies in that sunlit room, with its large, open windows, all naked and exposed. The morning sunlight was dancing on the white, stark floors that looked sterile and naked like the dead bodies.
“Here is your cadaver,” I heard my anatomy teacher announce in a calm, measured voice. “You can name her if you like. For the next semester, you will be learning from her. She has given her body, so you can one day heal or perhaps even save someone else’s life. Over the next few months, we will go through each of the organ systems—nervous, cardiovascular, pulmonary, gastrointestinal …”
I took a guarded breath and glanced at the rest of the room. Suddenly, the horrendous scene took on a new light for me. These were people, just like me, who generously gave their very body, so I could learn the craft of a Physician—this ancient, sacred craft.
“May! Let’s name her May. She looks like a May”, I found myself saying out loud. One of my teammates looked up, “That’s my grandmother’s name. I like it. She does look like a May”. And there she was, our May, in front of us, our great, sacred teacher.
Every morning we would walk in, say a prayer, and start our dissection. We first started with the lateral triangle of the neck, then moved on to the intricate nerves that ran down her upper extremities—the brachial plexus. The unending number of nerves, muscles, tendons, arteries, veins, and bones were at first a dizzying array of unintelligible words, but soon the puzzle pieces started making sense, like a symphony in perfect harmony. “God is an amazing creator. Amazing”, I remember saying to myself over and over as we moved on in the next few weeks, dissecting the chest cavity and then the abdominal cavity, exposing the heart, lungs, and all the major organs. It did not stop there. As the weeks went by, the dissections got more and more intricate, and the number of names and terms grew exponentially. We dissected her heart and learned all the intricate valves and chambers, even the nerve bundles that made up the SA and AV nodes. Learning anatomy was like putting a gigantic puzzle together, a large mosaic with all its puzzle pieces perfectly aligned. This is divine creation. This is the work of God and nothing else.
Soon, I had forgotten the noxious smell of formaldehyde and sulfur. The images of bodies dissected on tables no longer made me think of death, but gave me an appreciation and reverence for creation itself.
May taught us the basics of how the body is designed, and as we used an electric saw to cut her skull in its median plane, exposing her brain. I could not help but think of all the memories she had created, all the people she had loved and cared for, all the lives she had touched. It was a tough space to be, but my thoughts always directed themselves to immense gratitude for this human being. She was my first teacher of medicine.
The journey of becoming a physician is challenging, to say the least. It is emotionally, physically, and mentally taxing. It tests our resilience for what’s to come later, as we spend 36-hour shifts taking care of patients under extreme conditions with no sleep, no rest. That is what it takes to become a physician—to be able to make life and death decisions in the dark hours of the night. It is this training that guides us to save lives under stressful times and make split-second decisions that can make the difference between a patient living and a patient dying.
I used to question why this training had to be so darn rigorous. Why did I have to spend so many sleepless nights in my residency training and medical school rotations? Why could I just not learn this material in a decent 8 to 5 schedule? Now I get it. I get it. Because just like a soldier who must endure suffering and duress and learn to complete a mission with no sleep, water and food, so does a physician needs this rigorous training to have the resiliency to complete a 10-hour surgery without stepping away, or getting up in the middle of the night—no jumping up, I should say—and rush to the operating room to perform an emergency crash Cesarean section to deliver a precious new life.
My dream is that we never lose sight of this sacred calling, this sacred art, and tradition that is called medicine, because on the other side of the door, lays a May, who has given her body, to teach me how to take care of my beloved patients.
Kristine Tatosyan-Jones is a family physician.