On a wall inside the anatomy lab at Lincoln Memorial University's Debusk College of Osteopathic Medicine (Harrogate, Tenn.) is a mural, painted by first year medical student Carlos Humberto Cabrera Jr. The anatomy lab is where medical students dissect cadavers. The mural is a memorial, honoring the cadavers, the people who donate their bodies so that medical students might learn anatomy. The mural is right there in the anatomy lab. It took Cabrera more than six months, including his spring break and summer vacation, to finish the mural.
ETHICS GONE RIGHT
It's a wonderful story, a story of ethics gone right for a change. It reminded me of something Greg Calhoun recently said in a post on his blog Be With Intention. He recalled the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail skit "Bring out yer dead!" King Arthur rides through a plague-ravaged village where the Dead Collector is piling corpses on a wagon and crying out, "Bring out yer dead! Bring out yer dead!" One young villager wants to unload his old father, though the old man is still very much a live and hollering "I'm not dead yet." The Dead Collector protests, "I cawn't take 'im like 'at!" When the youngster begs, "Isn't there something you can do?" the Dead Collector obliges by finishing the old geezer off with a blow to the head and stacks him on top of the corpse pile.
"This scene from the classic Monty Python comedy is so funny precisely because we know it is so wrong," wrote Calhoun. "The dead and dying should be honored, not heaped onto a pushcart."
Back to the anatomy lab -- young muralist Cabrera told the Knoxville News Sentinel: "One day I was studying in the lab, and as I was working on a cadaver, it hit me: 'This could be my mother.' I feel giving your body for the study of medicine is an incredible and honorable thing to do, and I wanted to do something to acknowledge that gift."
The mural incorporates the study of anatomy into the content of the mural, which depicts seven dissected figures, based on classmates who modeled for the project, which are anatomically correct and can be used as a reference in the lab. The artwork also includes a spiritual element, with a "godly" figure and some angel-like beings. "I wanted the heavenly beings to convey the message that someone is still looking out for the body donors and they have not been forgotten," said Cabrera.
Not only does the artwork provide beauty, but with the combination of literal and spiritual, it is an educational tool in a number of ways.
Everybody in medical school needs to learn anatomy and long after the details of anatomy and the Latin names fade from a doctor's recall, memories of the dissection experience in medical school remain vivid. Anatomists emphasize that working with a cadaver produces a sense of reverence that textbook pictures and computer models do not.
CADAVERS HELP STUDENTS WITH EMOTIONS
Apparently in recent years, medical schools encourage students to work through their emotions and make certain they understand the gravity of the proceedings. The cadavers are thought of as being the students "first patients," to be treated with the respect that their future living patients will command.
"Today I made my first incision into another human body," writes medical student Anne, in her blog Medical School Mayhem. "It was at once sobering and exciting, this rite of passage, a threshold every future physician has to cross and probably remembers for the rest of her life."
For many, their first year dissections in anatomy class is a very powerful and sacred experience. And, medical school cadavers are memorialized in a variety of ways. Students at Yale a few years ago created a quilt to commemorate the anatomy course, with panels dedicated to each cadaver in their course. At a number of medical schools, memorial services are held at local cemeteries -- similar to a standard graveside ceremony. At some services, family members of the deceased are even invited.
Yale professor of gross anatomy Lawrence Rizzolo leads first-year medical students through their dissections. The process is less about the bits and pieces of the human body and more about the "synthesis of knowledge and emotion," he told the Yale Daily News. "For a lot of folks, it (brings up) essential core questions of death and dying, a real serious kind of discussion that transcends biology," said Rizzolo.
ANXIETIES ABOUT DYING
Sherwin Nuland suggested in his book "How We Die" that: "Of all the professions, medicine is one of the most likely to attract people with high personal anxieties about dying. We became doctors because our ability to cure gives us power over the death of which we are so afraid."
In her book "Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality," Pauline Chen added: "Attracted to medicine in part because of our own particular anxieties, we may be a self-selected lot who eagerly suppress these fears as we adopt a professional ethos that embraces denial."
Interesting that relatively few doctors ever give their own bodies to science....hmm.
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By Sharon McEachern