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Fifteen Minutes of Companionship

An anatomical illustration of a human heart on a white background.

On Oct. 8, I waited on my street corner for my medical school classmates. Today was our last day of Anatomy Lab and our last in-person class for the foreseeable future. Twice a week, our walk to lab together had been 15 minutes of companionship — an opportunity to see the faces I stared at over Zoom living, breathing, stressing and laughing with me. As we climbed the hill to campus, we exchanged gripes about the formaldehyde smell on our clothes. We shared our fears about the body parts we’d be dissecting. When we needed a distraction, we laughed about my latest cheesy Tinder match. And when I needed support, I shared how my grandfather had donated his body to an anatomy program like ours. I was going to miss in-person lab once we transitioned online. But I was grateful for how vulnerable many members of my cohort had been — both on Zoom and in person — and I knew those efforts would help us stay connected through this time of flux.

The pandemic has us all questioning what is required to connect with new people. I started the term worried about forming meaningful relationships within my cohort, given that most of my schooling would be over Zoom. How would we get to know each other? It would be hard behind clunky face shields in lab or as floating heads on a screen. Would we be able to tackle the challenges of our first semester after meeting each other just through video calls? When I shared personal tidbits over Zoom only to be met with blank faces, I sorely missed the richness that body language and physical presence can bring to emotionally charged interactions.

But I gradually realized that vulnerability would forge us together. Even over Zoom, we incrementally opened up, with spaces for vulnerability carved into the curriculum. We reflected on what cadaver dissection meant to us. We tackled prompts about our most memorable positive and negative experiences within the medical system. We learned how to interview patients about their sexual history and drug use. I opened up about my pronouns, my medical history and my family. Even our group check-ins at the start of the class gave each of us an opportunity to be vulnerable. They offered a glimpse into each of our lives, as we shared the challenges and joys of the past week. Forming meaningful connections over Zoom takes commitment to vulnerability, and I am grateful my classmates created safe spaces for that commitment.

In a normal year, Anatomy Lab would offer opportunities for in-person vulnerability and bonding. Standing inches from your lab partner as you slice into a human cadaver, it’s hard to hide your emotions, whether they are excitement or disgust or fear. I wasn’t sure if this year would be different — would my classmates keep mostly to themselves? Instead, we supported each other as much as we could. We maneuvered clunky face masks to show each other anatomical variants on our cadavers. We worked in tandem to flip and move our cadavers, and we talked things out to each other when we needed an emotional break. I was grateful to see so many of my classmates willing to put in the extra effort to connect. I knew these in-person efforts would work in tandem with the connections we would continue to make over Zoom.

Like at many schools, our curriculum is currently in flux, and my class doesn’t know when we’ll see each other again in person. At times, this can feel scary and isolating. But by being vulnerable throughout this time, my class’s joint experience of not knowing what to expect has helped bond us together. One day, as physicians, the emotional vulnerability we’ve built together will be a strength when our patients come to us during some of the most vulnerable moments in their lives.

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  1. Pingback: The Bayview Oath: Transcending Barriers in the Time of COVID-19 – Biomedical Odyssey

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