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