Yesterday I had the distinct privilege to sit with a group of first-year medical students and listen to their reactions after they'd met "their" cadaver for the first time (they work on the same "specimen" all year). It was a fascinating discussion. Here's what I can tell you about med students:
43% of them are "spiritual but not religious" and 26% "pray or meditate" most days (14% are not religious in any way)
but 51% of them identify most closely with Christianity (17% no religion)
and as far as life after death,
24% believe the soul returns to God/the Universe from which it came
20% believe the soul is judged whether it can enter heaven
11% believe that spiritual development continues after death
8% believe in reincarnation
14% believe we remain present (as an ancestor) in memories of the living
20% believe in no existence after death.
So how does this affect their working on a cadaver?
Many were "terrified" of death, but "in awe" of the body. They aren't willing to donate their own bodies, of course, after what they did to these. Not that it was disrespectful (although rumors abound of body parts being used for sport), but their first activity was ripping the skin off the back of the body - not pretty. Most just turned off their emotions and didn't think of it as a person.
Until they got home that night and got sick.
Everyone agreed that donating organs was noble and a good thing to do. I wonder if it's some way to grasp at immortality.
Several of the students really wanted to know more about their cadaver - the person's name, something about him or her. Their life, family, work. Others wanted nothing to do with that because they didn't want to dissect a "friend." One was named "Alfred" by his group.
Many felt that calling gross anatomy a "rite of passage" or calling the body a "specimen" was dehumanizing and disrespectful.
Some saw the great circle of life represented and marveled at their opportunity to learn to heal from someone who'd died.
Others just faced their own mortality and were afraid.
One said he had flashes of feeling like he was working on his grandfather.
All in all, it was a fascinating day. Much as they may not want to admit it, the students' personal views on death and religion will affect how they practice medicine and how they relate to patients and families.
One teacher/doctor said that in the decade since he'd been to med school, there's been an "evolution towards death" - that is, he was taught to keep people alive at all costs, and now the trend is going towards letting people die peacefully. Many of the major religions of the world support this, despite the Terri Schiavo situations that get so much press (that was more about politics than religion anyway - I mean, if they were Christians, wouldn't they want to release her to God?).
The same teacher left the students with the question: "If a patient says to you, 'Doc, I know I'm dying, but tell me, what's gonna happen to me when I die?', what will you answer?"
Food for thought.
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Last spring I had my first encounter with death: serving as a volunteer on the chevra kadisha, the committee of volunteers which prepares Jewish bodies for burial, in my community. With three other women I cared for the body of an elderly congregant who had died: washed her, dressed her in a shroud, prayed over her, and placed her in her casket.
It was profoundly affecting. When we finished I wept like a baby. I had never been anywhere near a dead body before, much less touched one, and the encounter was powerful.
I can't begin to imagine what it's like to dissect a human body, but I'd like to think that if I were a medical student, I'd be among those marveling at my opportunity to learn to heal from someone who had died.
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