In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

May 27, 2014

A message in nail polish

By In the Loop

BreenWilliam760Each year since 1985, the Mayo Clinic Department of Anatomy's Convocation of Thanks ceremony has provided an opportunity for Mayo Clinic students and staff to formally, and ceremoniously, thank those donors (and their families) who have bequeathed their bodies to medical research and education.

As with past events, this year's ceremony, held May 3 and organized by Mayo's first-year medical students, first-year physical therapy students, and surgical first assistant students, had no shortage memorable musical performances, readings, poetry, remarks and reflections. But none caught our attention quite like what happened about 41 minutes into the program. Sandwiched between musical performances, first-year Mayo Clinic Medical School student William Breen took the stage to share some thoughts on his first "patient" in a personal reflection called "Nail Polish."

We admit, the title threw us a bit at first. But then Breen started talking. And it all began to make sense. Here are his words:

About to uncover her hand for the first time, I clenched my fists, bracing myself for that familiar feeling of 50 pounds of rock sinking to the bottom of my stomach. I've been dreading this all day.

There's something so personal about hands, but when I unwrap her hand, I see fingernails painted with glittery gold nail polish, and I have to smile. What kind of woman, with tumors devouring her spine and crushing her hips, filling her lungs so that she's literally drowning alive in cancer, has the spirit to paint on that pop-and-gold polish for posterity? It's like she's shooting me a silent, faceless grin -- using humorous dignity and dignified humor in the face of death to tell me, it's OK. To forgive my bumbling hands, my calculated confidence, my past mistakes, and future failures. To tell me I'm a person, and it's my job to connect with people.

I wish I could learn more from her life. Trace her scars with my fingers and read the words written in Braille upon her skin. But I can't. I only have one message. One gift from a woman who's gone: Accept who I am, who she was, who we are, with all our beautiful imperfections, and just smile.

We'll give you a minute (because if you're  like us, you might need it.) Then, if you're so inclined, you can watch the entire ceremony here, and share your thoughts (and share this story with others) with a comment below.

Tags: Mayo Clinic Medical School, Medical Education Stories

What a wonderful story! I am thankful that this gentleman has that kind of insight and heart; we need that in our profession. You’ll be a great doctor Mr. Breen!

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