05/02/2014 09:20 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

Introductions With the Dead

I have introduced myself to a total of two dead individuals in my life.

The first was during gross anatomy when we opened up the body bag in our first semester of medical school. He was an elderly gentleman who clearly had a full life and a peaceful death. He was well cared for, and there wasn't an immediate reason why he died. The scar from his cardiac bypass was barely detectable; he had good doctors. He probably died in his sleep, surrounded by people he loved.

His rotund belly indicated he must have enjoyed his meals. Living in the south, he would have loved eating Carolina barbecue with his adult children while discussing basketball games and tearing apart fried chicken with his growing grandchildren. He must have surely tried the infamous fried Oreos at the state fair, and missed them sorely when he had to give them up because of his atherosclerosis. Still, he probably sneaked a few cookies here and there, much to the chagrin of his loving wife.

He must have also had a loving and generous personality. He and his family had donated his body to the education of medical students. He helped bring to life in our minds the muscles, bones, and organs that would have stayed flat on textbooks had he not made the sacrifice. He must have really loved science and medicine, giving medical students his most ultimate gift. Maybe he was even a doctor.

Death is full of unknowns, and sometimes it can be uncomfortable dealing in uncharted waters. I do not know their full stories, and so I can only tell you what I have inferred. Stories are sometimes all we have for the narratives we tell to give meaning to the unknown. It helps us remember individuals who have touched us in the briefest of moments.

My second introduction was second semester during autopsy. She was already on the steel table in the autopsy room when we arrived. Her skin was neon yellow from jaundice. Her liver had failed and we were trying to determine if she had a particular genetic form of liver disorder, so her family could be tested. She must have loved her family a lot.

Her dissection lasted a total of two hours. And though we did not perform the dissection, we still called her our patient, and noted down the description and weight of all her organs.

She, too, must have been a force of life. Though her disease was inevitably painful, she must have fought and raged against the dying of the light. Her nails were perfectly manicured with a sparkly shade of dark pink, and her hair, even in death, looked coiffed enough to attend the opera. In my mind, she did enjoy the opera, or at least musicals, at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Or maybe she traveled here from Washington D.C., in search of the best doctors in the country. A lot of people tend to do that coming to Duke Med. She would not have given up her life without a good fight.

Introductions are hard.

Introductions with living patients tend to be hard, because you are asking a stranger to trust you with the utmost intimate details of their lives. Introductions with the dead are harder. They tend to be the most enigmatic patients.