Compassion is a form of love. At Baylor College of Medicine, there is widespread awareness and introspection in terms of compassion, in part due to our Compassions lecture series elective. Also, one of my favorite things about med school so far is talking to compassionate, forward-thinking peers and mentors. But my little bubble of idealistic world view is often disrupted by the very real experiences I face at school.
During a small group session for the class “Patients, Physicians, and Society,” our mentor passed out an article — “Into the Water — The Clinical Clerkships” by Katharine Treadway, M.D., and Neal Chatterjee, M.D. This article described the changes in attitude 3rd-year medical students experience when they first start their clinical rotations. These students are at first shocked, then accepting, and finally comfortable with deaths of patients. To me, that is a scary thought.
Right now, in the first year of medical school, I am afraid something similar is happening. While at first I am scared of and distance myself from our respected cadaver-teachers, I am now comfortable with dissecting and learning from the bodies. I rarely think about the person who was so brave and selfless to provide us with the chance to learn from him/her.
What does it mean to feel comfortable around cadavers? If I can desensitize myself to disassembling formalin-soaked bodies, what else can I desensitize myself to? Does this mean that, like the 3rd years in the article, I will also become comfortable with death of those I am supposed to help? Again, to me, that is a scary thought.
I certainly don’t believe that desensitization and loss of compassion are inevitable, but the prevalence and ease of becoming comfortable with suffering and death is terrifying.