Dear Medical Student…

(I wrote this piece as a meditation for the students I mentor in the Professional Practice of Medicine course at the USC School of Medicine.  All of them will soon begin anatomy class – for many of them, their first close encounter with death.  Someday my body will be a cadaver for an anatomy lab.  Here’s what I hope the students will ponder:)

Dear Medical Student:
I hope it will be a long time from now; I am grateful to be occupying this body today.  But when you see this body lying before you in your gross anatomy lab, don’t call it mine.  It will be for you, and for all the patients you will serve in your career as a doctor.  Cut this body open with deep reverence, not for me, but for the living people whose bodies you will work to heal. My experience of eternal life during the process of my death will transcend this body completely.There always was much more to me than what you will see lying before you.  I never existed apart from the natural world around and within me.  Nor did I exist apart from my community of family and friends and co-workers.  I existed in the joy of my parents at my birth.  I exist in the laughter I share with friends.   I exist in my wife and my daughter and stepchildren and grandchildren.  When I die, I will live in the grief of those to whom I was dear.  I will continue to live in the web of relationships that I helped to create.  The body before you was touched and shaped by all these connections.  Perhaps you’ll find traces of them as you explore it!The older I get, the better I am at living in the moment.  By the time you look at this body, time won’t exist for me at all.  I hope that your eager fascination in dissecting this body will deliver you into the eternity that is now.  Staying fully awake to the present moment will make you a smarter and more sensitive doctor.

I would love to know what you discover as your scalpel cuts into this body I once occupied.  I wish I could see what you will see!  I never got a chance to examine this body as you will.  Go for it!   Learn as much as you can!  I imagine being alongside you as you start this adventure.

As you open the chest, can you see any sign of the thrill that burned there when I looked into the eyes of my newborn daughter for the first time?
Can you find a pathway in the nervous system that channeled the energy that roared from my thighs up through my spine and out the top of my head when I
made love with my wife?  Can you see any physical consequence of my sublime experiences of mystical communion with ultimate reality, beyond my ability to describe or name?  Do the feet give any hint of the many trailsnI hiked through glorious wilderness landscapes?  I don’t expect you to answer these questions. But I do hope you will honor the endless mystery of this body, and of all bodies you encounter in your career, and of the body and soul of the universe as a whole. Let this dissection be the occasion for asking the most profound questions about reality, about life, about what matters and what does not.  Go deep with your scalpel, but go deeper in your soul, down to the source and center from which you come, and to which you return.

You are becoming a healer, enabling your fellow human beings to experience wholeness and fulfillment, not just cures for diseases.  You will learn much by exploring this body.  You will learn more as you open your heart to your patients, discovering their needs and yearnings.   Let your sacred work begin!

JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM    Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See my GUIDE to my books, “musings”, and other writings
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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