Forty-four years years ago this fall, on my first day of dental school, we were introduced to our cadavers for the course of gross anatomy. I remember it well – it was a very moving experience to have the privilege of studying the fascinating subject of human anatomy by the dissection of actual human bodies. I was looking forward to it because as a high school senior planning on a medical career l had been able to tour the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison. During the tour, our group got a quick look at the gross anatomy lab with real dissections going on and I had a short exposure to cadavers for the very first time. That got me – I was fascinated and knew for sure right then I wanted to pursue a medical career. Some of my dental school classmates, however, were unprepared and we lost two or three immediately on the first day of class.

A Deeply Moving Experience

In viewing the film, the interviews of the students brought back many of the strong emotions and memories of gross anatomy class. I believe the film does an excellent job of bringing to light the varied emotions and fears faced by the students studying the human body for the first time. For some of them it was the first time they had seen a dead human body, much less touched one. The emotions of the students felt almost palpable on the screen, exactly like it was for me and my classmates all those years ago. I don’t believe anyone can go through that experience and not be moved and touched in a deep way.

The Real Magic

I would highly recommend this film for anyone, either for general interest, or especially for anyone interested in a medical career. My daughter, who is a student at UW-Madison, intends on pursuing a medical career and I had her watch the film. She was both moved and fascinated. The film isn’t for everyone, but then neither is a medical career. The real magic is the way the story is told through these student’s experiences as they study gross anatomy for the first time on their way to becoming doctors.

James S. Leaman, D.D.S.
Former Associate Clinical Professor, Marquette University School of Dentistry
40 years private dental practice

Excitement of Medical School

As soon as the excitement of being accepted to medical school wore off, the dread of entering the anatomy laboratory began in earnest.

“How could I be a doctor if I could not learn anatomy on a cadaver?”

Self-doubts were confirmed the first day of dissections. I almost quit: how could I be a doctor if I could not learn anatomy on a cadaver?

My Cadaver’s Human Journey

But I returned the next day and the next completing a full year of anatomy and dissections. What started as dread slowly turned into fascination and awe as the mysteries of my cadaver’s human journey revealed themselves to me. I remember wondering about who this elderly woman had been; what stories she could tell of her life and that I wish I had known her.

A Physician’s Reflection

Now 30 years later as I reflect on my time as a physician, I realize that my experience in the anatomy lab prepared my mind but also my heart for the journey ahead in medicine. My profound sense of gratitude to this unknown yet fully known patient has perpetuated throughout my career…I am honored and humbled to have been so intimately entrusted to “care” for her just as I am with all of my patients who put their faith and their confidence in me every day.

Alexandra Wolanskyj M.D.
Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs
Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science
Consultant, Division of Hematology, Department of Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic

The experience of watching the journey of the young medical students featured in The First Patient reminded me not just of the “science” I learned in anatomy class, but also of the deeper human questions and lessons that doctors begin to explore from the earliest days of our medical education.

Medical Education, A Rite of Passage, and Becoming a Doctor

Medical education has changed in many ways in the last several decades, but studying human anatomy remains one of the defining “rites of passage” to becoming a physician. Now thirty years into my career as a doctor and global health specialist, I still remember gross anatomy class and the five classmates assigned to my “dissection group.” It’s as if it happened last semester. For nearly all physicians, gross anatomy class is the first time we see a dead body, the first time we hold a human heart or brain, and the first time we become intimately aware of the inner workings of the human body.


Dissection in anatomy class usually begins with the back, or someplace, anyplace away from the face or the hands or the other parts of the body which are confronting reminders of the “humanness” of the lifeless body in front of us. By the time med students begin investigating the details of the face, the brain, the hands, and the heart, it becomes unavoidable to ask deeper questions about what makes us human. We see a lifeless body in front of us every day in the anatomy lab, and no medical student can help but wonder what their cadaver’s life was like, who were their friends or family, what were their hardships and successes, and what made THEM human. Most first-year medical students are young enough to have many more years in front of them than behind them, and while many are aware of death, anatomy class often serves as a forceful reminder of how precious life is, and how finite our human experience can be.

Cadavers, Medical Students, and Learning Empathy

Most medical students, dentists, and physical therapists spend enough time with the cadavers in anatomy class to develop some connection to the life and spirit that their bodies once represented. Empathy for that human body in front of you comes naturally. So does an appreciation for the sacrifice made by the donor and their family with the gift of their body to science. It seems universal that medical students feel reverence for the life that once was as it continues to teach us the values and depth of scientific and medical knowledge associated with the profession. The “memorial service” at the end of anatomy class can provide genuine closure for the students and the donor families along with the recognition and acknowledgment of the contributions made to medical education by those that are no longer with us.

After Gross Anatomy

After gross anatomy class, medical students learn to do a medical interview, to take a medical history, and to do a physical exam. Their “living” patients continue to teach each student as they become doctors, medical residents, practicing physicians, and occasionally medical educators. The road is indeed long, and most of us change as people as we become medical professionals. Beyond the science of medicine, we also learn lessons about what it means to be human, and about how physical and mental health affect life and death. Yet much of the critical work we do in medical school and as doctors began with our first patient.

For more information about the film check out director Chip Duncan’s blog HERE.

Hernando Garzon, M.D.
Emergency Physician, Kaiser Permanente
Medical Director, Sacremento County EMS Agency


During my college years at UW-Madison, I walked to class each day past a medical school building where a very strange thing was happening – human bodies were being dissected. What, I wondered, was that all about?

Breaking Ground on a Med School Documentary

Nearly forty years later, I have an answer, and it’s much more complex than I could have imagined. I’ve enjoyed a long career as a documentary filmmaker, but no film I’ve ever directed is as soulful or emotionally powerful as The First Patient. After years of development and research, the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine allowed the Duncan Entertainment Group the opportunity to follow first year medical students through the “Gross Anatomy” class. During seven weeks of filming this medical documentary at the Rochester, Minnesota campus, we followed a diverse and brilliant group of young people on a scientific, emotional and soulful journey of discovery. We knew we’d be breaking new ground as filmmakers, but the outcome is far more entertaining, educational, and thought provoking than we could have imagined at the start of class. That’s due, I believe, to the insights of the students that comprise the final narrative of the film. Their brilliance and diversity of thought is what makes The First Patient a “fantastic voyage” (yes, that’s a throwback to the feature film from 1966).

Documenting a Rite of Passage

Most doctors, dentists, and physical therapists will tell you that their first patient was a cadaver. Many will tell you that the first time they ever saw a dead body was the day they opened the door to the anatomy lab. Most consider their class in gross anatomy a rite of passage – it’s the one class that makes or breaks students on their quest to succeed in patient care. Part of the complexity of the dissection experience is based on the language of science and the rote memorization process involved in determining the location and function of individual organs, muscles, and nerves. But much of that can be learned from a book or 3D printed model. What makes the class worth taking and the film worth watching is that it’s experiential. The film chronicles the journey of the students, as they make a discovery, the audience makes a discovery. It’s a journey that can only be learned from a hands-on lab experience that challenges students to confront mortality, to overcome fear, to consider the moral and ethical questions associated with patient care, and to learn the true meaning of “teamwork.”

In the Lab

The lab portion of the medical school class we documented took place on the 9th floor of a non-descript office building. Of the fifty-two students in the class, twenty-two agreed to participate in our interview process, and sixteen made the final cut of the film. Of the approximately 250 bodies donated annually to Mayo Clinic for medical and educational use, 13 bodies were used in the gross anatomy class. Three professors and six teaching assistants participated on a daily basis with numerous medical specialists adding their insights for a day or two throughout the seven weeks.

The First Patient

The First Patient is pure documentation in a classic journalistic style. It’s not historical, there’s no retrospective. Instead, it’s like newsgathering – it’s real life happening on camera with as little impact from the filmmakers as possible. Our crew showed up when the students showed up. We never moved a body, we never interrupted a student, TA or professor, and we never had a “do over” moment. What happened on screen is what happened in class – and the humor, compassion, pain and joy of discovery articulate the students’ journey. As the class began, we knew we’d witness a progression from fear to confidence. We imagined that we’d see the students learn what it means to become a doctor. What we didn’t expect is what happens in act three of the film as students answer the most important question of all: What are we? Their journey becomes our journey; their answers become our answers. It’s for that reason that we invite audiences to embrace their courage and overcome any judgments or objections they may have to watching the film. It’s my belief that you will not be disappointed.

For more information about The First Patient please Contact Us.