If, as Madonna once sang in her hit song “Like a Prayer,” life is a mystery, then death is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma. But does it have to be? At IU School of Medicine – Northwest in Gary, our first-year medical students are introduced to the human body with the understanding that death need not be an impenetrable riddle. Through the generosity of those who donate their bodies to medical science and the respectful cooperation of their loved ones, medical students in our innovative gross anatomy program have the rare opportunity to communicate with the family members of their “first patients,” anatomical body donors.
This interaction, while perhaps initially awkward, often turns into something beautiful. From family members, students learn more about their patients’ lives than what is traditionally practiced at other medical schools, and learn more about becoming better physicians.
Knowing details like their patient’s nickname, their profession, and their favorite sports teams or foods, students’ understanding of their donors transcends the physical facts of their anatomy and grants them greater appreciation of their patients as people. This knowledge gives students additional insight into their donors’ previous ailments or causes of death. At many other schools, these issues are not thoroughly researched, and newfound information is not shared with the family.
My students and I see the value in this communication—it helps to develop smarter doctors and pushes them to research conditions that might have been unknown to them. Just as importantly, interaction with families teaches students lessons not always found in a textbook: empathy, compassion, and respect.
Nor is this two-way communication merely self-serving; we have found the process often becomes an essential part of helping family members work through their grieving process. Through tears and laughter, the donors’ families share precious moments from their loved one’s lives. Teachable moments like these show medical students that their donor is not just a specimen but once was a father, a daughter, a friend.
And, while I respect that human anatomy may be taught in many ways, I strongly believe in keeping ‘humanity’ in human anatomy. At the end of (your) day, wouldn’t this be your preference?