March 31, 2011

Life, Legacy and Anatomy Lab

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We leave bits of ourselves everywhere we go — skin cells, eyelashes, teardrops. We also collect bits of the universe as we pass through — air, dirt, a basil pesto chicken sandwich.  By this continuous process of exchange, pieces of us become part of the greater universe, and the universe part of each of us.

With every human interaction, we exchange bits of ourselves as well. Words, ideas, emotions. Your warm smile, my greatest fear, her infectious happiness. Every interaction we partake in leaves some imprint on the other soul.

Furthermore, every action that we take, every decision we make, leaves an imprint on the world. The collective sum — a weighted sum — of these exchanges amounts to our legacy on earth.

Anatomy lab prompted me to think about legacies. About anonymous donors who give their bodies to Science so that physicians-to-be can better understand human structure and function in hopes of giving patients-to-be the gift of Health, of Time — and why, and what it all means.

When we die, will our bodies be all that is left behind? Will our cadavers — the preserved final time-slices of our lives that smell of death and hold information about the brachial plexus and the lobes of the lung — be our legacies?

Our bodies after death will be the product of our experiences in life, telling a story about the interaction among our genes, our consciousness, and our environments; but they will not be our legacies. More meaningful than our physical remains are the choices we make while alive. The choice to listen patiently to someone who is suffering in spite of your daily demands. To be as kind to anonymous strangers as you are to your superiors. To be as kind to your loved ones as you are to strangers. The choice to participate. To engage. To show up. The choice to run a company or a family or a country. To make sacrifices because of your convictions. To speak the truth. The choice to enter a profession. The choice to share your story. The choice to donate your body for the good of others after you die. This is the stuff of legacy.

The individuals whose remains are in our anatomy lab each left their own personal legacies by the interactions, actions, and choices they made throughout their lives. However, they all had in common the choice to give of themselves in this unique way. From now on, whenever one of the members of Weill Cornell 2014 lessens a patient’s burden of disease, these 26 donors will be a part of that. Through the knowledge that we reaped by studying the intricacies of their bodies, these anonymous individuals will forever have contributed to our understandings. Their last act of altruism will transcend the boundaries of their finite life spans and live on in our work.

What will your legacy be? What will you leave behind? As you shuffle to class or smile at an acquaintance or stand in line for your morning cup of coffee, think about how you will transcend the boundaries of your own life. Think about how your presence makes others feel. Think about the power of your choices. About your endless potential — potential to produce good, and to produce harm. Ask yourself, how do I want to live? How do I want to be? Sometimes our choices seem big and dramatic — which career will I choose? Which patient will I save? With whom will I spend the rest of my life? — but more often our choices are small, and we don’t even realize we’re making them. Be mindful of your actions, of your words, of your exchanges. Don’t just live your life — lead it. Be aware of the imprint you leave upon your world.

Alexandra Villasante is a first-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College. She can be reached at acv2004@med.cornell.edu. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Alexandra Villasante