“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

Learning The Difference Between The Person And The Body

Gross anatomy lab first year of medical school stands out in my memory of those four years. I don’t remember a lot of details about other classes or rotations, but I remember everything about Gross Lab. We all showed up for medical school fresh-faced, eager, scared, and proud. We knew we didn’t know much but wanted to pretend we did. We had survived undergrad and the harrowing application process and were actually going to be training to be doctors! The Premed years were filled with stress and uncertainty: is this the right path? What does it even mean to be a physician? Do I have what it takes? Can I handle the workload and schedule? Will I even get in? Now here we were and some of those questions were still unanswered.

Forming Real Bonds

There were four of us at each tank. We informally partnered with the four next to us and the eight of us formed a real bond: friends, future roommates, long-term connections. I am sure it was at least in part due to holding on to each other those first weeks in an environment which was radically different than anything we had ever known.

The Smell Stays With You

The lab started that first day, like every day, with bringing the cadavers up out of the preservative. There were these levers on the tanks. When you engaged them, the cover would open and this pale, waxy body would rise up on a metal table, liquid streaming down the sides and back into the tank. Very eerie. I will never forget the smell of preservative. And it stuck with you. After lab, some of us went across the street for lunch at the women’s dorm (UW Madison Liz Waters). People would get up and move away from us!

Well Coached On Respect

We were well coached on respecting the cadavers. These had been real people who had generously gifted their bodies for the advancement of medical science. They had relatives, loved ones, friends. In those days we weren’t told much about who they were in life. But we certainly wondered. We wanted some kind of permission or validation that what we were doing was valuable for something more than our own personal education. Would what we were doing really help our patients in the future? I would say yes.

Everyone IS Different!

It turns out, everyone is different. Surprise! A beautifully illustrated textbook with multicolored diagrams and labels looked nothing like the bodies we were starting to examine. Why is this nerve here and not there? I thought the heart was only supposed to be this big? What happened to the gallbladder? We once spent a whole morning carefully dissecting out the thymus gland only to have the professor come over, look at our final result, and throw it in the garbage stating it was just “silly fat.”

The Value Of Teamwork

We also learned the value of teamwork. What one student saw was different than another. Some had read more, some had better visual skills, some were better with the knife, some were better at getting us to consensus.  We learned to interact, trust, and come to agreement with much better results than any of us could have done alone.

The Real Difference: Person vs. Body

Most important is that we started to differentiate the person from the body. Right away we wondered “Is this still a person?” “Who was this person?” “Why is their body like this?” “What was their story?” In medical practice, there are times the body is in terrible shape, and there is not much we can do for it, but the person is whole and that relationship is rich. Sometimes the body is healthy but the mind has gone and the actual person is hard to find.  It is critical as physicians that we prioritize the person we have a relationship with and not just the body we are treating. It began that first day in Gross Anatomy Lab.

Thomas Mahn, M.D.
Chief, Section of Cardiology
Ascension Healthcare
Wheaton Franciscan Inc.


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.