I saw his hands for the first time on Thursday.
Before then, they had been protectively gloved in light cloth mitts, as if they held a story I could not yet hear. Since Thursday was only our second day of anatomy, I had not expected to glimpse our body’s hands for a while yet, but we needed to abduct the arms in order to dissect along the midaxillary line that afternoon. Since I was the closest to the hand on my side of the dissecting table, I reached over and rolled the cloth away from the skin.
The hand was larger than mine, bluish. Gently reaching in, I grasped it, feeling its cold, firm touch against my own. There was something almost waxen about it, as if it had been carved from a fusion of marble and earth.
For a brief moment, I locked my hand with his, trying in my own way to connect with this life I would never meet. I will know no details of this man’s story, but I wondered whether a child once held his hand in the way I did now. Did this person have children who looked up to him in the same way I look up to my dad?
Who were you?
I like performing dissections—in undergrad, I enjoyed my zoology course, and I continue to be fascinated by the intricacy of surgery. Anatomy is no exception; it is so amazing to peek into the human body, and although the thought of learning so many nerve and muscle names can seem rather daunting, I am up for the challenge. At the same time, part of me feels vaguely disconcerted by the fact that although I will know the details of this person’s inner being more thoroughly than any other, including my own, I will never know this life.
That is why I am so glad that our class took a moment of silence before our first dissection lab on Tuesday. The thrill of exploration merges with the gravity of the gift I have been given, like treble notes and bass notes coming together into a musical score.
A musical score which, at the moment, seems to be composed mostly of 32nd notes.
We are in mini-quarter right now, which is a five-week period of intense coursework designed to ensure that everyone begins medical school on the same page. In addition to anatomy (which will continue for two full quarters), my classmates and I are taking a month of molecular biology and histology. I love my classes, although at times this week I’ve felt like I’m going down a freeway at 65 mph while trying to glimpse the details of the edge of the road (as a passenger, I might add, since I prefer to arrive at my destinations in one piece).
Thankfully, even when the edge of the freeway is a blur, the horizon remains clearly in view. Through the patient experiences integrated with our coursework, I have glimpsed how the details of molecular biology fit within the context of health and disease and have witnessed the very real and human side of all we are learning. The patients who have given deeply of their time, energy, love, and lives to speak with us are the words to the musical score I am learning, this music of medicine.
To them I dedicate this haiku:
You shared your story
With me and in that moment
Your life helped shape mine
To all those supporting me on my journey to physicianhood—those both present and past—thank you.