One of my most talented, passionate teachers in medical school, a professor of histology, frequently challenged us to “see God in man,” the divine manifest in the smallest cells and in the largest organs. Regardless of how one interprets “God” based upon personal religious or spiritual beliefs, my professor’s charge speaks to the very human need to search for a greater purpose in nature and in our own physical realities.
I describe my struggle to make peace with my grandmother’s death and the surprising comfort I found in the face of my anatomy donor in “An Unexpected Healer” (Intima Fall 2014) and in reading past issues of Intima, I was struck by Khalil Harbie’s “The Art of Anatomy,” (Intima Fall 2013) a piece of artwork in which a hand (presumably Harbie’s own) sketches the very muscles in his forearm that are at work while he guides his pencil. The piece is a skillfully-executed reflection on the intricate dissection performed in anatomy lab, but deeper than that, it speaks to the very purpose of such work—the drive to discover ourselves through our labors, to learn not only the complex mechanisms of our bodies but also the meaning and beauty hidden within us.
We are faced in medicine with sometimes unspeakable things and, most unsettling of all, with our own mortality. Our patients suffer and die, and while it pains us to see the fates of others, we also recognize we will ultimately share them. Witnessing pain and death is not unique to the field of medicine, but members of the medical field cannot look away from them. We cannot avert our gazes from the rawness of the human body and of the human spirit, because our responsibilities extend beyond ourselves. Instead, we must keep looking, and keep dissecting, until we find the beauty in others and in ourselves that nourishes our spirits and rekindles our passion for service.
I will be forever grateful I forced myself to gaze upon the face of my donor, despite my own grief and despite the physical gruesomeness of death. In her face I found solace, and love, and God.
Julia McGuinness graduated from Williams College, where she majored in Biology but developed a love for the humanities. She is currently a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and plans on a career in medical oncology. Aside from medicine, her passions are classical music, reading, baking, and spending time with her friends and family. Her piece, “An Unexpected Healer,” appeared in the Fall 2014 Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine