Let The Living Teach Physicians About Healing

April 12, 2009 at 8:59 pm

A physician watching over a sick child.
Commentary by Felice Aull, Ph.D., M.A.; Adjunct Associate Curator, New York University School of Medicine; Editor in Chief, Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times ("Dead Body of Knowledge") Christine Montross made a plea to continue the long tradition of cadaver dissection in medical education.A Montross, a physician and author of the thoughtful book, Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab, argues that anatomy courses based on human dissection offer "a safe and . . . gradual initiation into the emotional strain that doctoring demands." She is concerned that recent trends to incorporate advanced imaging techniques into the anatomy lab may even replace dissection completely and believes that medical students will miss out on the emotional conditioning that human dissection provides. A few days later the New York Times published six letters to the editor responding to Montross’s essay — all of them written by medical professionals or medical students. Five of the six letter writers supported Montross’s position, but a Stanford University professor disagreed, stating that "teaching anatomy cannot be couched in an either or framework; instead, technology and cadavers should enhance each other." I agree with the Stanford professor and here argue that dissection of a preserved cadaver, while it has much to offer for medical education, is not a teaching tool to help physicians and other health professionals "cope" with the emotional demands of working with sick and dying human beings. It has, to the contrary, been noted that the inevitable objectification of the body that takes place as the cadaver is dissected during months of anatomy teaching, marks the beginning of the developing physician’s professional detachment — a detachment that needs to be unlearned and guarded against so that it does not interfere with appropriate care for patients.

Writes one student during her anatomy course, "I can see how easy it is for health professionals to focus on the body and not on the person" (p. 38, Anatomy of Anatomy in Images and Words, by Meryl Levin). And another writes, "I suppose I have become comfortable, or at least reconciled to the reality of the next 10 weeks. I don’t like that. I don’t like that I have stopped truly thinking about the experience, because there is still a lot to think about. These cadavers did once live, breathe, eat, and sleep before they so graciously donated their bodies to medicine" (p. 58, Anatomy of Anatomy). These thoughtful comments were written by anatomy students who volunteered to participate in a project that photojournalist Meryl Levin initiated several years ago, culminating in her book, Anatomy of Anatomy in Images and Words. The students wrote journal entries during their anatomy course, which forced them to reflect on their experience. Most medical students do not participate in such ongoing reflective exercises while they take gross anatomy, or even after they complete the course. Even the memorial services that are often held at the end of anatomy classes do not address the problem of professional detachment and certainly do not address questions of how to interact with dying patients and their families. Following such a memorial service, one student noted that "I found it hard to become very emotional about these prosections, these bodies, these individuals, these first patients of mine. Maybe I am on my way to acquiring some of the tools I will need to become a physician — a scary thought though, because that is not the kind of physician that I would like to become. . . . must we have a memorial service each time we encounter death in some form or another? It worries me a little that we (or I) needed the service to step back for this all-important reflection, something so many of us could not or would not have done on our own, individually. Hopefully dealing with death will be different — not easier, just different — the next time around" (p. 124, Anatomy of Anatomy).

There are, it is true, some medical schools that nowadays recognize the problem of professional detachment and its early beginnings in the experience of intensive cadaver dissection in the gross anatomy lab. Most notable among them is the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which, under the guidance of anatomy instructors and thanatologist, Sandra Bertman, work with students to help them recognize and articulate (verbally and in drawings) their own fear of sickness and death and other implications of working on the dead-see annotations of Facing Death: Images, Insights and Interventions, and One Breath Apart: Facing Dissection, Bertman’s books detailing this approach.

But what will dealing with death be like when it happens to a person the physician has been treating? The artificially preserved cadaver of the anatomy lab cannot be equated with the complex physiologic and emotional processes of becoming sick and of dying, and its dissection cannot be equated to working with suffering or dying patients and those who love them. The cadaver is a static entity, a representation of what once was, not a process that the student has witnessed as it was unfolding. Newer imaging techniques at least allow observation of some body processes, even if they do not provide the emotional substrate for that body and its interactions with others. Although students may project their fears onto the cadaver, the cadaver cannot help them to negotiate the needs of unpredictable and changeable human beings-human beings who, as physicians, they will come to know, however fleetingly. That negotiation can only be learned about and confronted by working with the living and continually reflecting on that work. Generations of medical students have, after all, learned anatomy from cadaver dissection, but physicians have been criticized for failing to engage with dying patients and their families. It is the incorporation of a medical humanities perspective into all phases of medical education, not cadaver dissection per se, that attempts to address such problems.

References
Bertman, Sandra L. One Breath Apart: Facing Dissection (Newton, Mass: Ward Street Studio) 2007

Bertman, Sandra L. Facing Death: Images, Insights, and Interventions (Washington, Philadelphia, London: Hemisphere) 1991

Levin, Meryl. Anatomy of Anatomy in Images and Words (Third Rail Press