“Poets understand that there is nothing of value without death. Without death there are no lessons, without death there is no dark for the diamond to shine from.” — Clarissa Pinkola Estes

It’s safe to say that the most fundamental and long-standing mystery we as humans have sought to solve throughout our evolution as a species is this: What are we? More poignantly: Who are we? Lately, in my personal quest to get my head and heart around this cosmological enigma, I have found much repose in the study of myth. Symbol and archetype (which we too often mistake for biography and history) are not the moon, but fingers pointing to the moon. The twentieth-century master of myth, Joseph Campbell, spoke much about the hero’s journey vis-a-vis archetype-affirming campfire stories told throughout the centuries, meant to illuminate a clearer-seeing into our subconscious: who we truly and purely are beneath the skin.

Embrace My Own Humanity and Mortality

With that in mind, the moment my friend, Chip Duncan — with light in his eyes — told me about his filmmaking journey with The First Patient, I was immediately fascinated by its prospects and possibilities to give us a rarely-seen vantage point into our shared journey up the mountain to stand face-to-face with the Inevitable. It conjured a terrifying invitation to dare to face and embrace my own humanity and mortality with a deeper sense of awe. After viewing The First Patient in its entirety, it definitely accomplished its task. Beforehand, Chip told me that this was the most spiritually enlightening film he has ever made. Well, I definitely get that now.

While being immersed in the study of myth and archetype leading up to my viewing of The First Patient, it crystalized something I have been ruminating on: Each body is a vehicle of consciousness; our journey is ultimately unto a universal identification with who we are as a collective Self. Beneath the skin, we are ultimately made of the same stuff. Wow. If we actually owned that transformational truth, how would our reconciliation with equality, compassion, and empathy for those ‘not like us’ be revitalized?


In viewing The First Patient, the dismemberment motif, where the hero is chopped to pieces (present in certain Eskimo stories, in Egyptian stories, in stories from all over) stood out to me as I contemplated the rite-of-passage journey these medical students traveled. In these stories, heroes face their shadows, their dark counterparts. In these stories the hero has to slay the other in order to enter the next world alive. Specifically seen in the story of the Egyptian god Osiris, where he’s killed, dismembered, and put together again. This dismemberment motif is seen more blatantly in the Native American story of Blackfoot, were the father of the buffalo bride is stomped to pieces, then resurrected. Through the centuries, we have depended on such myths to give us a sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

The predominant story structure that underpins century-surviving myths, like that of Blackfoot and Osiris, is the Life/Death/Life cycle: the hero’s path from birth, to death, to rebirth — i.e. to Buddha-hood, Christlikeness, Brahman, Allah-envelopment, etc, etc. This cycle is evident in every novel, fable, feature film, graphic novel, anthropomorphic campfire story, and most customarily, within every major religion and faith tradition. The Life/Death/Life cycle is everywhere, literally. Chip Duncan’s artistic achievement in The First Patient dovetails into something Joseph Campbell said about the role of artists and storytellers: “Artists are magical helpers, evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves. They can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”

A contemporary of Campbell, and another one of my literary heroes was the late, counter-culture monk and social agitator, Thomas Merton. Merton insisted, “We are already One; we just don’t know it yet. What we have to become is what we are.” There is no separateness. Thus, just as the way of social participation may lead in the end to a realization of the all in the individual — as in The First Patient’s ‘rite-of-initiation’ thread — so brings the hero to the self in all.

At a time when the universal equality of all human beings is under assault, and nationalism, tribalism, and totem is uplifted as a faux litmus test for power and superiority, may The First Patient be a pinpointing scalpel that razes the masks we hide behind and invites us to face the deeper question of who we truly are, not who we want the world to think we are behind our self-fabricated Instagramatic and Maskbook faces.

Deeper Awakening

The hero’s journey is always one of discovery: returning back home with an elixir or healing balm for transformation & enlightenment. In my observation, this is what the medical students featured in The First Patient have come away with. Their success in this journey is not measured by a framed piece of paper that will someday hang on their walls, but a deeper awakening about our collective identity.

After spending an entire semester with their cadavers, the culmination of these students’ journey literally brought me to tears. A memorial service for their cadavers honored them for their willing service to be vehicles of consciousness to these artists, these doctors-to-be, who were undeniably transformed by this rite-of-passage experience. My ultimate moment withThe First Patient came with something Mayo Clinic Teaching Assistant, Paul Salem said: In doing this, “you can see every human for what they are, as a human being who deserves compassion. And that applies to everyone, even our enemies.”

Benjamin A. Eisner is a Milwaukee-based director, cinematographer, and screenplay writer with a passion for social justice and reframing public discourse through the stories he pens.


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


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.

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