Honoring your first patient: a cadaver

Feb 4, 2013

Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson"
Credit Public Domain

Medical students and doctors tell me they'll never forget their first cadaver, the body they came to know intimately in their first year anatomy class. I remember Future Docs Sarah Rapoport and Peter Kaminski telling me they felt a kind of reverence for this person who gave the gift of their body. At Brown University's medical school, a handful of students work together on the same cadaver throughout the whole session. They get to know a bit about the life that cadaver led before they encounter it in the lab. And then they spend the semester dissecting, discovering, hunting for anatomical structures. It still feels intimate, they tell me, even though the face and hands are draped.

This blogger said goodbye online, wondering in print who he was and how best to thank him.

Here's how some other students and schools address this unique and intimate gift. This blogger said goodbye online, wondering in print who he was and how best to thank him. A Vanderbilt student composed a poem about her cadaver.

Indiana University School of Medicine - Northwest holds a memorial service after each anatomy class finishes up for donors and families, complete with a clergy member and student readings. It's held right in the anatomy lab, everyone gathered around the steel tables where their loved ones were dissected. Students there learn the names of their cadavers, and are even encouraged to correspond with the donors' families. That's pretty unusual. Today, most medical schools, like those of the University of California, hold some kind of, albeit more impersonal, annual memorial service for donors of anatomical gifts.

I've been thinking about this seminal med student experience because of a story I heard - guess where! - on our station this morning about the shortage of brain tissue for studying diseases like autism. It's a simple gift, but what a huge impact we can have in death on the next generation of doctors and researchers. If you're interested, here's more about Brown's anatomical gift program. And here's a list of programs nationwide.