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Doctor Recalls Facing Cadavers, Mortality In Gross Anatomy Lab

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is my last week hosting this program. I'm going to take some time off and come back as a roving correspondent doing long-form reporting and profiles of fascinating people. This week, I'm going to check in on a few of the other fascinating people I've interviewed over these past 12 years, some of the stories that have stuck with me the most.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can see muscle here. See that? That's muscle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, look at that. Look how you can see it. Oh...

BLOCK: Eleven years ago, I spent time with a class of first-year medical students at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. It was their first day in gross anatomy lab, their first day dissecting a cadaver. I wanted to hear what they were discovering about the body, about sickness and mortality. When I met with the students again at the end of the year, we talked about what they'd learned from their body donors. Here's Ally Parnes from 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALLY PARNES: Our cadaver had obviously put up a strong fight to stay alive. He had melanoma that had metastasized and there were tumors all over his body. That was really difficult for us because we went through the process of his dying. What I learned is how precious life is how, much suffering people will actually put up with just to stay alive and just to stay here a little bit longer. I just remember thinking that I'll see patients and how important it is to remember that our will to fight is really enormous and it's a precious gift that we try to hold onto.

BLOCK: That's Ally Parnes, then a first-year medical student, now a doctor. I've stayed in occasional touch with Ally over the years. She's now a radiologist specializing in breast imaging, and she joins me now to catch us up on what and how she's doing.

Ally, welcome back to the program.

PARNES: Thanks so much for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: I do wonder how often you think about your experience in that gross anatomy lab, that man, the cadaver, you came to know so well.

PARNES: I do actually, from time to time, think about him. I actually think it was interesting just listening. I didn't remember having said that, but, the fact that life is precious and people will really struggle to hold onto it as long as they can - I tell my patients, you're stronger than you think you are, and it's amazing what the human spirit can overcome.

BLOCK: Its interesting Ally 'cause you have also written about your experience as a breast cancer survivor yourself. You were diagnosed really early, right? You were, what, 40?

PARNES: Yes, the walking poster child for mammography, as it turns out. And a complete coincidence. People ask me, did you go into breast imaging because you were diagnosed with breast cancer? No, it was a couple months before I was going to start my breast imaging fellowship that I myself was diagnosed through a mammogram and subsequent biopsy.

BLOCK: So seeing medicine from a whole different perspective - obviously, as a patient, as well as a doctor.

PARNES: Yes. You know, I won't say I'm happy I got cancer...

BLOCK: I wouldn't expect you to.

PARNES: ... (Laughter) But I do think it can be incredibly helpful in how I interact with patients. I saw a patient once who - you could just see it in her eyes that she felt all alone and very scared. At that moment, I did tell her that I knew what she was going through because I had been there. And I watched a transition instantly with her. And it was quite powerful to be able to help someone, kind of reach out my hand and have her kind of walk along with me through what she had to get through that day in terms of a biopsy. So there've been a lot of experiences that have been, I guess, richer. There's a lot more depth to some of the experiences I've had.

BLOCK: How is your health, Ally?

PARNES: Oh, thank you, I am very fortunate to say my health is excellent. My oncologist says, I consider you cured. The fact that I was able to find it early was huge for me.

BLOCK: Well, I'm glad to hear you're doing well.

PARNES: Melissa?

BLOCK: Yes?

PARNES: Can I share, like, a couple things?

BLOCK: Sure.

PARNES: I don't think I ever told anyone this, but, from that anatomy lab, I remember we got to the part where we had to dissect the breast. And it hit me - that is just, it feels so wrong because here is this person, we're just lopping off this part of her body that was so personal to her because it was part of her femininity, part of her intimacy, and - maybe, if she had had children - fed her babies with this one piece of her body that we were just cutting off and bringing across the room. I remember thinking about that when I had a choice of doing a lumpectomy and prophylactic mastectomies. I ended up deciding to do bilateral prophylactic mastectomies. And I actually think it was helpful for me to have had that experience because I was able to truly understand what I was getting myself into.

BLOCK: Wow. I'm sure it didn't make it any easier.

PARNES: No. It's not the right choice for everyone by any stretch, but it was the right decision for me for sure.

BLOCK: Ally, thanks again so much. I really appreciate you talking to us.

PARNES: Thanks so much, Melissa. It was great to talk to you.

BLOCK: Dr. Ally Parnes was a medical student when I first interviewed her 11 years ago. Now she's a radiologist. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.