I recall an embarrassing moment I had with a doctor I shadowed when I was in college. We were looking at a patient’s x-ray, and the doctor asked me what side of the body the liver was on. Easy question, right? Not for me. I had no background in anatomy, and I answered with embarrassing apprehension that it was on the left side of the body (it’s on the right). We both knew I wasn’t in medical school yet, so honestly, I guess there wasn’t much of a reason for me to know that. But it gave me a motivation to learn that material one day. Little did I know, only a few months later I’d actually be in my first year of medical school, in a lab dissecting a human body, and learning all about each system of anatomy.
Not knowing much previously about the human body made learning anatomy in medical school extremely rewarding for me. I was nervous going into lab the first day, as are most medical students. We didn’t start anatomy as soon as school began, instead the class started about 3 weeks into our first semester. My medical school does this for a few reasons, but mainly to get us acclimated to the demands of being a medical student.
When I walked into the lab the first time, I didn’t know what I was going to feel. Was I going to have some overwhelming, visceral response that would make me rush out of the lab in fear? As I stepped into the lab I saw numerous metal tanks organized throughout. The air seemed oddly sterile and I didn’t smell anything unusual. I walked over to my team’s tank, talking with my lab group in hopes of a distraction from the fears that were at the back of all of our minds. Each donor was stored in a large, nickel-colored, tank. Elevated about 4 feet off the ground, there were two heavy doors we had to lift and lay to the side of the tank. The donor was stored in a solution of formaldehyde that we had to raise the body from each lab. There were cranks that we had to pull down that elevated the body just above the surface of the fluid. After we raised our donor out of the tank, that’s when I started to realize what we were about to do. I thought surely this is when my visceral reaction would burst forth. Something different happened, though. I felt an amalgam of emotions. I had respect for our donor, for her selflessness in letting us use her body to learn. I felt awe for the complexity of what we were learning, and I felt anxious because I’d never experienced anything like it. It’s an odd concept, really—dissecting a human. But it’s an incredible, tactile way to learn. I expected to come to a point when I was going to be moved over the edge and have some sort of emotional break down. That never happened. Instead, I was eager to use my hands to learn about the human body, for one day that very knowledge I was learning would aid in my helping other people.
I was always comforted knowing that each donor was in fact a donor. They wanted to give their body to science, to help train the next generation of doctors. I am indebted to these wonderful people who did such a gracious, selfless thing. Our donor died from cardiopulmonary failure. She owned a small store somewhere in our state. In fact, each donor is from our state. These facts reminded me of her humanness. I needed that. I found myself becoming more introspective than I thought I could be, ruminating on the whole idea of human dissection. I appreciate so much the opportunity I had to touch and feel and experience each dissection. To hold a human heart in my hands, to grasp and pick up a brain, to touch a human lung and see exactly how spongey they really are. This is a crisp, vibrant jewel that doctors in training get to experience. We are the few who get to learn about the body in such a hands-on way. And this will stay with me for the rest of my life.
So often when we think about death, we think of it as being the end of our bodies—there’s nothing left for our bodies to do. Not so for donors. Even after death, they remain teachers, supreme pedagogues, training us in the most intimate, real way. There is no other experience that comes close to being taught anatomy in such a tangible way. I am indebted to these selfless people for the knowledge that I gained from their selflessness.
Next time I hear about a heart attack and one of the coronary arteries that’s been blocked, my mind will go back to the day I held a human heart and touched the coronary arteries. Surely, I’ll be moved to a deeper level of human empathy and care by having such a visualization in my mind. I’ll think about my great teacher of anatomy, our donor. And hopefully, the next time I’m asked where the liver is, I’ll be able to answer correctly (it’s on the right side, don’t forget it!).
About Weston Eldridge
Weston Eldridge is a graduate of Mississippi College with a BS in Chemistry Medical Sciences and Biomedical Sciences. He is a first year medical student at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. He grew up in Flora, a small town in central Mississippi and is a Mississippi Rural Physician Scholar and he plans to practice rural medicine one day. While not studying for his classes, Weston enjoys spending time with his wife, writing, and reading. He is the author of the book Sundry Reveries, and he hopes to continue writing for the rest of his life.