The Red Baton


While I was in Boston last week, I got an email addressed to the School of Medicine faculty group from the president of the first year medical school class. It was an invitation to attend a ceremony which took place three days ago, on the courtyard lawn of the medical school. This ceremony was being held to honor those who had donated their bodies to science, more precisely to the anatomy lab where all first years learn to dissect out the intricacies of the human body. Families of the deceased donors were also invited to this event, an appreciation organized by the medical students. The class president urged as many medical students and faculty to attend as possible. I had never heard of such a ceremony but if I had not been out of town, I would have gone.

It was getting late last Wednesday night when we drove through Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When I saw the highway signs, I wondered about the significance of the name. As a little girl growing up in Texas, I had taken baton-twirling lessons, like every other little girl in Texas. Those lessons were short lived—I did not quite have the manual dexterity necessary to play that stick back and forth between my short chubby fingers. In high school I learned a new meaning for baton–that it was the stick passed from runner to runner during a relay race. I made a mental note to look up Baton Rouge when I got to the hotel since I thought perhaps I could use the meaning as a metaphor, having just “passed the baton” to my daughter, the newly minted doctor. Wikipedia disavowed me of that notion. Baton Rouge LA, or “red stick” was named quite literally after a cypress stick that the early French discoverer of the locale, Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’ Iberville, had found planted in a riverbed adorned with the bodies and blood of slaughtered animals to mark the boundary between the Bayou Goula and Houma tribal territories. By the early 1800’s the upper tribes of the Creek were known as the “Red Stick Warriors.”

It’s been a week or so now, but I’ve been thinking that perhaps that “red stick” analogy wasn’t so far off the mark after all. The bodies of those donors mark the end of the territory of innocence for a medical student. No matter how much black humor is displayed in the lab by nervous students wielding a scalpel for the first time, there is honor and dignity in there too. Along the way, the students see more bodies and more blood, both literally and figuratively as patients live and die by their hands, and new priorities and goals emerge, while old friendships and even marriages fall away. Parents send children away to college, and in these days of prolonged dependence and economic hardship, many times children return. At medical school graduation last Tuesday night, I saw no children wearing caps and gowns. A new generation emerged to wage war on sickness. The baton has indeed been passed.

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