UC Berkeley press release


Anatomy students honor their cadaver in a unique anatomy course at UC Berkeley

by Patricia McBroom

Berkeley -- Cadaver. The word chills the blood. A nameless dead body, cold and lifeless on the dissection table in Anatomy 1A. This is how past generations of soon-to-be-traumatized medical students have seen their first "patient."

All of that has changed in a unique anatomy class taught this summer to a dozen medical students attending the University of California at Berkeley.

In this innovative class in gross anatomy, the cadaver has a real identity -- which students may know at their choice -- a profession and children. It is introduced to them as a human being, and when the class is over, when its body parts have been fully probed and examined, it is put to rest in a memorial service held by grateful students.

UC Berkeley's class, sponsored by the campus's School of Public Health and the medical school at UC San Francisco, represents an expansion of these two campuses' Joint Medical Program into the arena of medical ethics. One aim of the course, which runs from June 24 to Aug. 15, is to increase the sensitivity of physicians toward dying patients, especially so that they do not abandon patients when they cannot save their lives.

National trends in medical education are moving in the same direction, but UC Berkeley's anatomy course carries the trend further.

Gross anatomy is an intense course. Not only do students stay up half the night absorbing vast amounts of data, but through dissection and scientific exploration, they also are exposed to a view of the

human body that is potentially dehumanizing, said Hugh "Pat" Patterson, adjunct professor of anatomy from UC San Francisco, who is teaching the course. To counter the typically callous attitude toward death that gross anatomy inculcates, the class must break into territory long forbidden in the training of physicians.

One powerful taboo followed by generations of doctors was never to talk about death in the anatomy course, said Patterson.

"It was horrendous," said Patterson. "Here you were as a new medical student, taking apart the body bolt by bolt, with your emotions boiling under the surface and you could not talk about it. If anyone dared, the professor's attitude was, 'That's your problem,' or 'I don't want to hear about it.'"

In Patterson's class, students not only talk about feelings, but they recount the dreams that many of them have as a consequence of this extraordinary encounter with mortality. Later in the eight-week course, they will meet in a eucalyptus grove on campus to work through their intimate experience with death. A memorial service for the cadaver with poetry, literature and/or music will bring the class to an end.

"Anatomy confronts you with your own mortality," said Patterson. "You have to grow with it, to get to the stage of acceptance. We use this powerful arena to explore what death and dying mean to these students and to prepare them for the moment when they will be faced with the death of a patient."

Patterson said doctors often withdraw emotionally from patients who are about to die. This abandonment causes pain and anger on the part of the patient and family, who may then sue the physician for malpractice.

"Many malpractice suits are about anger, and being abandoned can certainly generate anger," said Patterson.

"It's hard to lose a patient but it's also inevitable. As physicians, we should be able to get through our guilt and grow to the point that we can accept the coming of death. That way, we can continue to serve the patient," he said.

"Sure, we should focus on saving the patient's life, but if that is all we do, the patient will be hurt when he or she has to face death alone."


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