The anatomy laboratory was always freezing. This was our first course as medical students, and we had split ourselves into groups — four students to every cluster. Each of us carried a copy of "Netter's Anatomy"; by the end of three months in the lab, the volume would become chemically yellowed by formaldehyde, and to leaf through the tawny, crackling pages would be to feel your fingers becoming slowly embalmed. Our group had three men — me, S. and B. — and a woman, G. We "shared" a 60-something female cadaver whose name we knew by only her initials: M.C. She had died, we were told, of metastatic breast cancer. Eventually, as we dissected her body, we would find misshapen deposits of that cancer in her brain, liver and bones.
We met twice a week in the chilly anatomy lab and had lectures, twice a week, in an auditorium downstairs (each of us was also given a real human skull, in a lacquered mahogany box, to take home to study. "A Gift of Dr. Goldberger, M.D.," mine said, although I didn't know whether he had merely purchased the box or donated his cranium). There's the old, apocryphal story about the law-school professor who announces: "Look to your left and look to your right. One of you is going to flunk out of this school." But in medicine, we would soon learn, the danger wasn't flunking out of school. It was a phenomenon called burnout — being propelled to leave the profession after years, or even decades, of training and practice. "Look to your left and look to your right," the anatomy instructor might have said one morning. "One of you is going to flunk out of your medical life."