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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Fall 1997, Vol.17, No.3
P&S Students

Honoring Our First "Teachers"

'Let us resolve to let these our first teachers
and patients be our last unknown patient's history.
They have given us the gift of emotional distance
to prepare us for the challenge of accompanying
our future patients.'
Editor's Note: Jim Soha, a Presbyterian minister and P&S student, gave remarks at this year's memorial service held by first-year clinical gross anatomy students for individuals who donated their bodies to advance medical education. Dr. Ernest W. April, associate professor and director of clinical anatomy, told P&S Journal about Mr. Soha's success in combining his perspective as a minister and as a medical student. "It was extremely well done and many students have commented upon its relevance to them," Dr. April said. Mr. Soha's remarks, delivered May 12 in the Pauline Hartford Memorial Chapel, are reprinted here.
          By Jim Soha, Class of 2000
William May, founding fellow of the Hastings Center for Ethics at Georgetown University, explores the manner in which images of the healer in medical ethics shape our modern conception of the physician in his recent book, "The Physician's Covenant":
The medicine man or shaman in traditional societies foreshadows several of the images that shape medical practice to this day... The shaman often combined three functions: curing the sick, directing communal sacrifice, and escorting the dead to the otherworld. [The shaman] combined, in effect, three offices that have been separated in modern times: physician, priest, and undertaker... Our culture, of course, has separated [these] offices partly for pragmatic reasons but also for important symbolic reasons. We do not feel comfortable combining (and thereby compromising) the fight against disease with the care of the dead.

Yet today we acknowledge by our presence at this memorial service that the responsibilities of each office--that of physician, priest, and undertaker--are assumed by anyone, however symbolically and in varying degree, by those who choose to accompany persons in their death. That we as future physicians have witnessed firsthand the limits of medical practice, and that we need to set aside in a priestly fashion this time to give thanks for those who were our teachers, and pay respects to the dead.

One of the most powerful opportunities afforded the priest or clergyperson is the opportunity to accompany men and women in the shadows of their deaths and to sit with the family members left behind in the sting of death's wake. In these surreal and yet fully real moments, humanity at its best and at its worst is displayed. Raw emotion and powerful insight grips those who are dying and grips those who have been given the privilege to witness life's final transition. It often falls to the clergyperson to weave a sermon of the stories of the dead person's life with reflections of those left behind, and in doing so, I can attest, one is changed because what matters most in life--family, love, anger, forgiveness, unforgiveness, tears of laughter and of sorrow and of indifference and of passion--all of these are laid bare and one can't help but be changed in the face and power of life in its most essential elements.

As I reflected on our year together in clinical gross anatomy, I was struck that these elements--humanity at its best and at its worst--are left behind when we began our scientific journey. And rightly so. It would be too painful to know the history of those hands that took another's in partnership, of those arms that embraced children and grandchildren, of those eyes that watched the world, of those hearts that fluttered in love's wake and broke in love's loss. Theirs was a history we will not know, left only to our imaginations' eyes to construct.

But as we gather together today, let us resolve to let these our first teachers and patients be our last unknown patient's history, however uncomfortable and challenging that may be to us. They have given us the gift of emotional distance to prepare us for the challenge of accompanying our future patients in their times of life, and, yes, in their times of death. These men and women have donated their lives so that we might not only learn how to save others' lives, but also, that in the imminent face of death we might with courage and compassion also walk through the valley of the shadow of death and be changed ourselves. Like the shaman, in the service of memory and appreciation of these our teachers, let us dedicate ourselves to lives of faithful learning in our profession, compassionate caring of the sick and the dying, and the courage to be changed by the process.

May God bless our minds to grow both in wisdom and insight, our hearts to feel deeply and live compassionately, and our hands to bring healing to those broken in mind, body, and spirit.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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