One Breath Apart: Facing Dissection is a pictorial and narrative account of gross anatomy class in medical school. The book highlights the educational, moral and metaphysical opportunities anatomy courses afford those who dissect and learn from the cadaver. Educator and thanatologist Sandra Bertman has expanded on her work with medical students previously summarized in her book Facing Death: Images, Insights, and Interventions (see annotation).

Written with the first year medical student in mind, One Breath Apart is a compilation of drawings and writings by students from the University of Massachusetts Medical School between 1989 and 2002 in response to course assignments. The book is dedicated to the professor of the anatomy course, Sandy Marks - of note, the medical humanities module, including assignments and events were integrated into the course. Bertman describes the course and provides a plethora of student work.

Additionally, the book is enhanced by photographs by Meryl Levin, with writings by Cornell-Weill medical students, excerpted from Levin's marvelous study,  Anatomy of Anatomy in Images and Words. Also included is a foreword by Jack Coulehan, who writes of his experience with his cadaver ("We named him ‘Ernest,' so we could impress our parents by telling them how we were working in dead earnest." p. 7) and the lifelong impact of dissection on the student.

Of particular note is the variety of content included in this intriguing volume. Artistry is not a medical school admissions criterion, yet a number of the drawings have design components which are thought-provoking and profound. For example, on page 80 a female doctor adorned with white coat, stethoscope and bag stands beside an upright skeleton. They are holding hands.

Bertman concludes the book with photographs, drawings and text related to the annual spring memorial service for the body donors. The section includes eulogies by students and responses by donor family members. Writes medical student Nancy Keene: "Studying his body provided an opportunity which enhanced my education. But it was the giving of his body, which has remained with me as a lasting memory." (p. 87)


This book is useful for both students and medical educators. Students can gain an understanding of the historical import of anatomy class while finding validation for their own emotional and conflicting responses to dissection. Medical educators can find a framework for encouraging reflection and empathy integrated into a required course. As simulated learning environments become substitutes for some dissection course material, this book will be a helpful reminder that all dimensions of the experience of gross anatomy cannot be captured by viewing prosections or interacting with computer-based modules.


First published by Ward Street Studio in 2007


Baywood Publishing

Place Published

Amityville, NY



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