Death is a loaded word pregnant with a sense of finality. Thematic throughout much of human existence, and The First Patient, it often throws what it means to be alive into sharp relief.
The finality of life is deeply entangled in humans’ pursuit of meaning. Though for the wise among us, such as Albus Dumbledore, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure”, to me the great unknown has always induced a sense of fear.
Excitement and Fear
Least to say, when writer-director Chip Duncan presented me with the opportunity to serve as a production assistant on The First Patient during the summer before my final year of undergrad, my excitement about contributing to a feature doc was countered by a dueling sense of dread. After telling Chip I’d consider his offer, I spent the last few weeks of my junior year of college working in D.C., frantically scrambling to finish papers, and ruminating about whether I could emotionally handle spending my summer immersed in death. Knowing that I would regret succumbing to my fear even more than passing up such an opportunity, I finally gave Chip a tentative yes.
This was to be my second summer with The Duncan Entertainment Group and I spent the first few days back in the office familiarizing myself with the new archive software that allowed for the effective management of the hundreds of hours of footage the crew shot in the anatomy lab. Occasionally, I would glance over to the workstation where associate producer Theran Pfeiffer was adding metadata to footage. I tried not to pass out when whatever part of the dissection he was cataloging was particularly gruesome.
I did my best to postpone logging lab footage by preoccupying myself with scrupulously cataloging scenic footage of Mayo Clinic and the city of Rochester while transcribing the interviews Chip and co-producer Vivien Williams had conducted with the anatomy students. It was as I transferred the articulate thoughts of the Mayo Clinic medical students to paper that my fear began to ebb. Many of the students were my age. And in them, I saw myself. As I listened to Maggie, Dylan, John, Nate, Amanda, and the others describe how essential dissecting a human body was to accumulating the knowledge they would need to effectively and compassionately care for patients, my perspective began to evolve.
Finding Their Calling
Watching individuals who were my peers (in age if not experience) pursue their calling to care for others with such tenacity as to willingly confront death, I began to realize that they were not fearless but rather finding meaning and motivation within the parameters of our physical and spiritual existence.
They approached their cadavers with a sense of wonder and deeply felt gratitude. The students brought the diversity of their past experiences to the lab. For some it was the first chink in the armor of youthful invincibility, for others their awareness of mortality was already deeply entrenched springing from their previous experiences of illness and tragedy. As a passive observer to their journeys, I could see that they took the lifeless bodies in front of them and infused them with new life as they gained practical knowledge and insight into what it means to serve as a doctor and to live a fully human life.
As the summer wore on, I eventually began to lend Theran a hand with logging dissection footage and I quickly became desensitized to the splay of organs and tendons on my screen. Contextualized by the students narration of their anatomy experience, the dance of bodies, dead and alive, coming together to further medical knowledge seemed beautiful rather than gross. I could see the raw materials that Chip and fellow producer Bob Huck would mold into the film begin to emerge, and I realized that the story being told was an important one in a modern world where hygiene and healthcare have rendered death distant, impersonal, and terrifying. Elbow deep in guts, the students were confronting the ultimate ending and, through adding descriptors to each scene, so was I.
It was removed from the exercise of logging, separated from the lab by the impersonality of a computer screen, however, that I was again confronted by death. In the middle of the summer, Chip offered an aspiring filmmaker the unparalleled opportunity to produce an interview shoot for the film. He trusted my limited skillset far more than I did, and he let me arrange an interview with a group of individuals who all resided at a retirement community, people who were planning to donate their bodies for anatomical dissection. I was terrified.
Throwing myself into the logistics of producing and really hoping I wouldn’t screw up, I shoved the fear knotting up in my chest away. The day of the shoot arrived and I had a sheet of questions that I had tried to think over without being sidetracked by nerves.
The first interview was with an elderly woman whom I had not previously met. I jumped into asking her questions about why she had decided to donate her body and how she felt about death. As the conversation evolved, we touched upon the recent passing of her husband, also a body donor, and she began to cry. I felt completely unprepared. Sitting before me was a woman far older than me, or any of the medical students, still grappling with death but nonetheless willing to think about it and plan to transform her passing into a learning experience for others.
Though, I can’t remember what I said, and it was likely an inadequate platitude, it was a moment that stuck with me. I have reflected on that conversation often. Her emotional response to my questions made me realize that giving voice and credence to individuals’ experiences and narratives is what filmmaking is all about. Through the production process to the finished film, it is a way to connect the individual narrative threads of human experience and help to contextualize our understanding of the big questions – questions of life, death, and what it means to be a human.
Although my emerging passion for documentary storytelling may not have the same tangible impact that the soon-to-be doctors featured in the film will have, I hope that this film, and the clear-eyed, artistic efforts of our team, will shed light on donors, medical students, doctors, and everyday folks’ attempts to find value in life despite knowing that we will all die.
What Happens Next
Regardless of your beliefs about what may happen next, it is worthwhile – and perhaps even noble – to accept the finitude of our earthly experience and make a difference within that limited set of options. For some people that means pursuing a career in medicine and for others it means offering your body to be, as one donor put it, “recycled” in death. The First Patient chronicles the incredible journey medical students go through as they confront death while also preparing to compassionately maximize healthy lives for the living. But, it’s also a universal story that serves to demonstrate that there are ways to make this life valuable and meaningful.
Death and resurrection are central to the The First Patient – the death of the donor leads to the life of new doctors. My small contribution to The First Patient helped me realize that there is a commonality in the uncertainty that is at the root of my fear. While death may be inevitable, living in fear of death need not be. The thoughtful students featured in The First Patient demonstrate, through the passionate pursuit of a calling and an orientation towards serving others, that meaning just might be the antidote to the perturbing finitude of life and perhaps even prepare us for the next great adventure.