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Spring 2014
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ESSAY
 
Dissection and Doctoring
What the Dead Teach Us About Healing the Living

Recently, Iíve been fortunate enough to have the chance to talk with students at many different medical schools.  Iím usually invited to speak under the auspices of humanism in medicine, but students often want to talk with me less about medicine and more about the important aspects of their identities that existed before they began medical school. 

The students practically blurt out the descriptions of their former selves.  They were writers, or musicians; researchers or dancers; karaoke champions or triathletes.  And because they have learned that I was a writer before I became a doctor, the most frequent theme that comes up for students when we meet is the longing they feel for their own past selves.  How did I manage, they ask, to write during anatomy lab?  I wanted to, too, they tell me; I can see how helpful it would have been as a way to sort out the stress and emotion of dissection to write a poem (or play my guitar, or ride my bike) butóand here the refrain is always the sameóthere was just too much to study, and I didnít have time. 

Since my own first days of medical school, Iíve thought a great deal about the many roles that gross anatomy lab plays in medical education.  Among the most important is that it is truly a young doctorís first charge to initiate balance.  How do we balance our own lives with medicineís insistent call?  The pull of medicine reaches far beyond our first semesteróthe library hours of the preclinical years bleed into the overnight calls of clinical rotations, which give way to the 80-hour-workweeks of residency training.  And anatomy, with its factual and emotional demands, mimics medical practice in a way that other preclinical courses such as histology or physiology simply cannot do.

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