Tomorrow morning I’ll finish our second-to-last exam of the year. We’re continuing our block on cardiovascular physiology and pathology. Although we have glanced at various pathological specimens of hypertrophy (hearts that are too big from having to pump too hard) and congenital defects (holes in the heart letting blood move in the wrong direction), it seems like forever ago that I held our donor’s heart in my own hands.

At this point, anatomy seems like a distant memory to me. We spent countless hours in lab, learning from our donor in the most intimate of ways, and yet just six months later I feel removed from the gift he gave us by donating his body to our education. The cumulative stress of this year has me feeling mentally lethargic and desperate for summer, feelings that were foreign to me when we started med school last fall. I know I must have been stressed then too, but when I look back on anatomy I remember it as a time of excitement, enthusiasm, and wonder at the privilege to embark on such a tangible form of education.

I’ve predominantly learned about the heart during this block from a near-sacred textbook recommended by faculty and students alike. People refer to “Lilly” as if it were a close friend or confidant; in a way, it does provide a sense of comfort in that it clearly presents information and makes the complicated cardiovascular system more approachable. But when I flip through these worn and highlighted pages and then think back to the memory of holding my donor’s heart in my hands, I know there’s no comparison. I was able to physically trace the flow of blood through the chambers of his heart with my fingers, inspect the hollows and crevices of his valves, squeeze the slightly stiffened aorta and bring it close to me to peer into the darker pathways through which his blood flowed. Although we dissected through his tissue to better visualize the inner workings of his heart, I continued to value it as a whole and often remember holding it with care as if it were a fragile and precious gift.

Last Friday afternoon, I was reminded of both that sense of gratitude we felt for our donors and also of the initial excitement associated with embarking on the journey of medical school. Class leaders from the different graduate schools on campus organized a Donor Memorial Ceremony for families of the donors and students to celebrate the gift these people gave us even after death. It may sound strange, but I was originally pretty sure that I would skip the ceremony. Let me set up the scenario for you: it’s the Friday before a Monday morning exam, you finished the last lecture of exam material at noon and the ceremony isn’t until 4:00pm. You’re way behind on studying and have a training workout to do, plus the weather is gorgeous and all you can think about is playing Frisbee in a park somewhere rather than feeling obligated to go to a (probably depressing and will-make-you-cry) ceremony about stuff you haven’t been involved with in six months. I wasn’t really feeling it and I didn’t think many of my classmates were either.

Ultimately I decided to go because I figured demonstrating my appreciation for their gift, even if it was a delayed thank-you, and showing support for my classmates who had worked hard to plan the event was worth postponing a workout or study time by a couple hours. I stayed on campus to attempt to study before the ceremony and was not surprised by the familiar quiet that tends to blanket campus when all the students leave for the weekend.  But as four o’clock came along, so did many of my classmates. I was astonished by the showing from my class and felt a renewed sense of pride in our collective devotion to more than just doing well on an exam. I felt honored to belong to a group so dedicated to the humanity behind this profession.

The ceremony itself, and our class participation in it, brought me a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the path that I’m on. It’s hard to get myself motivated to study in the short-term, but it feels wonderful to know that such caring peers surround me and that we have not only the potential, but also the commitment to give back all that we’ve been given.

 


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