Sep 16, 2010

The Gift of Stories

Last year, I shared a story about what I’d like to call a healthy degree of precocious curiosity about the human body and what my parents refer to as an inexplicable amount of craziness that led me to voluntarily staple my tongue. That courageous and completely unnecessary self-inflicted surgical procedure has left me with a permanent scar on my tongue. This unusual accumulation of granulation tissue on my tongue is now not only an interesting anatomical and histological finding, but represents the story of a “unique” phase in my life.

As I studied anatomy last year, your loved one, my very first patient, shared innumerable stories with me. Each lab session was filled with incredible medical discoveries. Muscles, nerves, and blood vessels are all logically arranged to accommodate our daily actions and behaviors. The mighty organs throughout our body are carefully protected by bone and layers of tissue. And individual body systems, like the eye, operate with an awe-inspiring amount of coordinated refinement. The smartest engineers and most brilliant architects may be able to create an equally powerful human body with various updates and improvements, but they will never be able to surpass the exquisite original because the artificially constructed designs cannot capture the exceptional narratives of your loved ones.

Your gift to me was much more than a gift of medical discovery because you have given me the privilege of being a part of your favorite stories about your loved ones. The slightly enlarged triceps and biceps of the right arm that we studied during our musculoskeletal sequence illuminate a possible vigorous tennis career. I bet his tennis serves were dramatic and the lightness of his feet meant he also had an unbeatable net game. The beautifully tapered fingernails that we delicately worked around as we studied the intricacies of the hand echo elegant dinner parties. Did she have a string of pearls that always added an extra touch of grace to her favorite blue dress? The clarity of the lungs that gleamed at us the first time we were able to take a look at the thoracic cavity give hints about a love for the great outdoors. Hiking, fishing, hunting, it’s likely that he did it all, but his favorite thing to do was probably taking the family out camping, right?

The most remarkable aspect about your gift is that it is a boundless gift that continues giving. This summer, I had the fortune of traveling to Ghana to conduct research. Since I’m still in the preclinical phase of my medical education, I jumped at every opportunity to shadow doctors, sit in on procedures, and interact with patients. I brought your loved one with me wherever I went. If I needed to take a pulse, I’d quickly locate the radial artery. While watching a hernia repair, I’d almost instantly recall the contents of the inguinal canal. Where is the anesthetic injected for spinal anesthesia? That’s right. The subarachnoid space. Every single time, I instinctively made correlations to what was in front of me to my first patient. Did you ever think that your loved one would have the opportunity to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to Ghana? And I’m just a second year medical student whose career in medicine is only just beginning. The stories of your loved ones will travel even farther and will touch more patients than you could ever imagine.

My first year of medical school was defined by the time I spent in anatomy. I spent hours probing through various anatomical structures and yet I feel like I only scratched the surface in my pursuit of medical scholarship. But what I did learn during those hours in anatomy lab, as I slowly built an intimate rapport with my first patient, was the invaluable lesson of the joy and fulfillment gained through listening to the stories of every bump, kink, and scar. It is the magnetic draw for these patient narratives that led me to inevitably mature from the dangerous narratives of attempting surgical procedures on myself to attending medical school and working towards becoming a doctor. Your special gift, my first patient narrative, is one that will always stay with me as I continue to learn and never stop listening. Thank you.

Delivered at the University of Michigan Medical School Anatomical Donations Memorial Service (Sept. 15, 2010)