Dear Rabbi and Susan,
This year I became a med student. Therefore, with anatomy lessons I go to the morgue. It’s a great way to learn, however, I can’t help but feel rather uncomfortable.
That got me thinking – Is it an appropriate way to learn?
God bless you.
With kind regards,
First of all, congratulations on getting into medical school. That is quite an accomplishment.
As you go through school and residency and embark on a medical career, you are going to be called upon to do many things that will make you uncomfortable. Not only will you dissect cadavers but, among other things, you will be cutting into living people and be exposed to intimate and hidden parts of people’s bodies. You will be surrounded by people in deep emotional trauma. You will sometimes make mistakes that have the most serious consequences as well as blessedly do just the right thing at the right time with amazing results.
In order to be effective, it can be helpful to remember that you are in the process of fulfilling your God-given mission to heal. “…I am the Lord your Healer” (Exodus 15:26) Just as He heals us, so should we emulate Him and also become healers. You know that you will need to learn to act professionally and overcome your feelings. That doesn’t mean to cauterize your feelings but it means to control them. The danger is that you can do that so well that you end up slightly dehumanizing yourself in order to do what needs to be done.
So, we are happy to hear that being in the morgue makes you feel uncomfortable, because it reflects an understanding of the awesomeness of life and death and the responsibility you are taking on yourself by training to be a tool of God’s healing. Medicine needs to be a calling, not a job. Part of that calling is entering a “zone” where you can work effectively despite the nature of what you are doing.
We encourage you to precede every shift with a prayer acknowledging your partnership with the Almighty and asking for His support. You might also choose, like some other amazing doctors we know, to make a ‘spiritual’ demarcation after working with a cadaver (or losing a patient) by filling a cup of water and deliberately pouring it over each hand three times. Water is the universal symbol of life and this would mark an acknowledgment of what you just experienced and a return to a life-giving environment as you continue your day.
You also need a large human support system. That should include those who have been in your shoes and who have managed to combine medical professionalism with a well-adjusted human life. It will also be important to have people you can lean on for physical, emotional and spiritual support.
If all this sounds like an immense undertaking, that is because it is. You are not choosing an easy path in life, but you are choosing one with immense opportunities to help God’s other children. Take care to keep yourself healthy and well as you do so.
Wishing you success,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin