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Remembering “L” as we prepare for the Cadaver Memorial

Remembering “L” as we prepare for the Cadaver Memorial

I received my invitation to the class of 2021 cadaver memorial last week. The cadaver memorial is a tradition amongst the Texas A&M College of Medicine students as they complete their anatomy class. The memorial honors the individuals who donated their bodies so that the medical students could learn human anatomy, the foundation for the practice of medicine. The cadaver memorial is a clear manifestation of our Aggie values, especially the value of respect.

The invitation made me think about my own experience as a young medical student. Entering the human anatomy lab is an experience that we all think and probably worry about before medical school starts. We may try to prepare for it, but it is really not like anything else we have ever done. I can still remember that sense of anxiety as our anatomy professor led us into the lab for the first time. For most students, anatomy lab is our first encounter with a dead body. It is an intimate and prolonged encounter usually over months. It is an encounter that will stay with you for the rest of your life. At least it has with me.

medical student lighting a candle on a table with many other candles

I remember my cadaver. In the 1980s we were allowed to know their first names. For privacy reasons, I will call him “L.” I remember many things about “L.” He was a tall and muscular man. My tank mates and I admired him for his muscularity because our dissections were made easier. We were grateful for the help he physically provided to us as we struggled to learn the names of each muscle and their insertions.

I also remember his hands. “L” had large hands and they were calloused. I always imagined that he had been a hard worker during his life. Could he have been a dock worker in the Houston ship channel or a rancher from central Texas?

During our dissection, we discovered “L” had atherosclerosis and probably died from a myocardial infarction. A heart attack. The cause of death was so common. It hardly caused a stir amongst the other students as we compared notes. But “L” was anything but common. I wanted to understand what it was that moved his heart to donate his body, his earthly remains, to teach the likes of me. I wish that I could share with “L” that I remember him, even today, as I examine patients. “L’s” body was the template for me and showed me how wondrously made we all are.

I often reflect on how very fortunate I have been to study medicine. I have received many gifts along the journey, most especially, the privilege of interacting with thousands of patients. The encounters we have as physicians increase our knowledge of the human condition and they help us to develop understanding and maybe even wisdom. Anatomy lab is the starting point. For me, “L” was the beginning of my understanding of life and death from the point of view of a physician. I thank “L” for that gift. I hope all of you will thank and remember those who make your education possible.

With this reflection, I would like to introduce you to a new blog. I will be sharing real stories about medical students, doctors and patients. I will share some of my reflections on the stories and invite you to do the same. The blog is meant primarily for Texas A&M medical students. As Dean, I want to play a role in the development of your identities as physicians in training. I hope by sharing these reflections we will have an opportunity to explore the many facets of becoming and being a physician and the core values of our shared profession.

3 Replies to “Remembering “L” as we prepare for the Cadaver Memorial”

  1. A great reminder of the great gift we have to serve others! This reminds me that not only do we serve our patients through our care but our patients serve us as our professors, and they teach us some of the greatest lessons that books cannot.

  2. Before our first Anatomy Lab, I had previously worked with human prosections during my masters, and truly believed I would not be as affected from seeing our cadaver for the first time. I didn’t realize my confidence had been completely feigned until I stepped into the lab. I remember walking in: the bright lights, the sterile tanks holding our first patients, and the palpable range of emotions exuding from myself and my classmates. As the orientation for lab continued, my eyes would dart back and forth from the presentation to the metallic tank, my feet shuffled never finding a comfortable stance, and my mind raced in preparation for the inevitable moment to come. When it finally did; everything changed. Our team began to crank the lever, raising the body from the depths of her new resting place. It felt like a personal ceremony to which only we had been invited; a humble presentation of a priceless gift. With each turn of the crank, I was increasingly overwhelmed with humility, sorrow, and graciousness. Once she reached the final height, we bore witness to the culmination of an entire life and the weight of her final act. It epitomized selfless service. An immense motivation began to permeate throughout my being. She had believed in us enough to give her last available gift so that we may step into our roles as physicians and help those still with us. Throughout our journey, we have had role models that we aspire to emulate. We carry them with us everywhere we go. Although I may never know her name, or who she was before I had the honor of meeting her, she will be with me through every patient encounterI ever have. I will never forget the sacrifice she made for me and hope that someday when we do meet again, I made her sacrifice worth while.

  3. Thanks to all the students and faculty who have commented on this blog post either online or in person. The comments can be summarized in this way: Our first patients demonstrate to us what it means to give everything you have for the betterment of another person. This is the very heart of our profession.

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