Lab 16

It is now a common practice for first year medical students to take part in a ceremony honoring the donors of cadavers used in dissection for the teaching of anatomy. The manner of the students’ participation is up to them; the reading of poetry, including original poems is not uncommon.

Here is such a poem by Fiona Horgan, reprinted from Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.


Lab 16

Today’s session begins just as those gone by.
As my labmates begin to unfurl the gauze and commence our exploring,
instinctively, but unbeknownst to the others,
I am quick to assume my self-appointed duty of rewrapping,
carefully ensuring that her hands are not exposed.
Is this naïve, knowing that today would come
and I would have to spend my entire afternoon focused on them?
And why, after so many hours with her,
so many delicate procedures,
does looking at her hands still stir unparalleled emotion in me?
“Trace the radial artery . . .”
I only see hands that still possess the pallor of life,
nails bearing the remnants of rose-colored polish.
Did a loved one tenderly paint them?
And did they hold her hands as she faded from this life?
I search for her pulse.
“Divide the transverse carpal ligament . . .”
Isee my grandmother’s hands.
Hands that expertly smoothed wrinkled sheets.
Hands that pressed coins to buy sweets into her grandchildren’s eager palms.
Hands that wore a symbol of my grandparents’ love for 56 years.
I trace the fine lines on her palms.
“Examine the thenar muscles . . .”
I see my mother’s hands.
Hands that nurture children when they are sick.
Hands that dance along piano keys.
Hands that feed and clothe the homeless.
I smooth her wrinkled skin.
“Identify the tendons of the superficial and deep digital flexors . . .”
I look at my hands alongside hers.
They are the tool with which I will first touch my future patients.
Each time I lay my hands on those I hope to heal,
I will remember hers.
I reach out and fully grasp her hands.

                                                                  –Fiona Horgan

(From: The 2008 Anatomy Ceremony: Voices, Letter, Poems
Yale J Biol Med. 2009 March; 82(1): 41–46)

  1. David, thank you with all heart for sharing this, for making this ceremony more known. I didn’t. Why would I? But now you’ve bridged a gap unseen, and the other side now visible, well received. It isn’t in the formal, medical, what Fiona Horgan had to share, yet for one, so much more I’d be willing to respect that hand in care.

    Thank you David, and excellent thing to share.

    • Thanks Neil. Having gone through medical training years ago, when they had no such commemoration, I can only say this is important to do. It preserves human sanctity, which is important both for the donor and for the student.

  2. How civilised.I bet we don’t have that here .I am terrified of doctors having once been married to a nephrologist for ten years. I need to find one who is a poet as well.Do you know any Australian poet/doctors?
    Quite honestly until I met you(virtually) it never occured to me that
    a doctor could be a poet. I used to know some who played musical instruments quite well but performing requires a different kind of sensitivity to poetry.Poetry is more of understanding, an all seeing eye of the human condition.I wish you were my doctor.Knowing you as a poet gives me confidence in you.

    • Hi Rall,

      I’m sorry you had such a poor personal experience. I don’t know any poet physicians in Australia, though I do know that as a group, physicians seem predisposed to explore their artistic side. Not all, by any stretch. But it seems that it benefits both doctor and patient, both informally, and formally, i.e. when art is part of the interaction, and even the therapy. Thank you for the vote of confidence! At times I have felt torn between my scientific and artistic sides. I guess I am trying to reconcile them. I have hope that some of the interest in the area of “medical humanities” might bear real fruit.


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