For most medical students, staring at their first cadaver in anatomy lab triggers a rush of emotions, ethical questions and revelations. Most students have dreams about the dissection, carrying the experience with them throughout their lives.
It was therefore appropriate – and therapeutic – for first-year medical students enrolled in UF College of Medicine’s narrative medicine class to read and discuss the book, “Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab.”
The author, Dr. Christine Montross, a poet and third-year psychiatry resident at Brown University, visited students and faculty on Tuesday, Jan. 13, with the message that conflicting feelings about dissecting human bodies are normal.
Furthermore, she advised the students to maintain balance in their lives by exploring their talents and incorporating personal interests into their medical careers.
In her book, Montross wrote, “The most alarming moments of anatomy are not the bizarre, the unknown … they are the familiar.”
She was describing her feelings and confusion when she first felt the hands or face of the subject, whom her lab group named “Eve.”
It surprised her that the outward aspects of a person carried more emotional impact than the sexual ones. Montross said it is because the hands and the features are the parts of the body held most intimately and familiarly by a relative, friend or lover.
“Our cadaver had orange nail polish on her fingernails and toes, and I wondered if when she was painting her nails if she had any idea that she would never do so again,” said a student who wrote an anonymous comment.
Student, Stephanie McCullough said she was excited and perhaps a bit less anxious entering the lab, but that when she saw her cadaver’s nail polish, she couldn’t ignore the very human and intimate connection. Knowing that her cadaver died of Alzheimer’s disease, she wondered why the woman decided to donate her body to science. But knowing the deceased made the decision, which is always the case, offers students some relief.
Another student was moved by the book in a different way. As an opera singer and first-year medical student, Jennifer Rodney, admired Montross’ strong commitment to both her writing and medical careers — issues of time and perhaps guilt for most medical students.
“I very much related to Dr. Montross in her feelings about medical school reaching into every corner of her life,” Rodney wrote. “My life used to be split pretty much in half between singing and my ‘normal’ life. Now I have neither. Med school has seemed to have taken both of those places.”
The book, which evolved from a journal to a master’s thesis and now a memoir, is a lesson in how students should creatively and constructively make their talents — be they writing, singing or playing a musical instrument — parts of their medical careers.
“I hope to have a similar balance in my life,” Rodney said. “Not only is it healthier, but it makes the entire journey more of a pleasure to undertake.”
Entering medical school at Brown University at 28, Montross was the oldest in her class and perhaps the only student with a master’s degree in creative writing. In preparing for college, she thought about journalism and law school, thinking her knack for formulating arguments would be useful. But all it took was one poetry class at the University of Michigan, and she was certain her path was final.
Through course readings, Montross became fascinated by divinity and madness. This fascination turned into thoughts about psychology, “but in a humanities way,” she said.
After teaching English to troubled high school kids in California, where her students’ psychosocial issues engaged her more than the teaching, she decided to apply to Brown University to learn more about how the brain works.
“The minute I walked into anatomy lab catapulted my career as a writer,” Montross said. “By accident the writing increased my investment in medicine and vice versa.”
Nina Stoyan-Rosenzweig, director of the College of Medicine’s medical humanities program, said she knows the students have a “challenge for time.” Stoyan-Rosenzweig said the goal of the humanities program, the narrative medicine class and even the inception of the Thomas H. Maren Medical Student Reading Room is to “give students permission to hone their talents so that they are happier human beings and, in the long run, better doctors.”