Documentarian Chip Duncan was given unprecedented access by The Mayo Clinic School of Medicine to follow first-year medical students through their gross anatomy course – the dissection of a human body. The First Patient is the marvelous result: a film that pulls back the curtain on an endeavor that inspires fear and morbid curiosity.
When considering medical school, invariably thoughts turn to the requirement to dissect a cadaver. As a rite of passage, it’s an initiation into the medical profession that has been practiced for millennia by those seeking to understand this mortal coil.
Duncan takes us on a journey along two tracks. Firstly, he examines the mystery of the body and then he introduces the med students.
We see how the cadaver is stored, how it’s moved, how it’s wrapped in towels and plastic sheeting before the students arrive, and then the moment of truth when they unveil the corpse. Someone’s father, mother, grandparent, son, or daughter lies waiting for the scalpels and bone saws.
Death without drama is here: impersonal and cold, almost casual. The skin of the cadaver is the wrong color. With no muscle tone or blood pressure, the shapes of the body melt into featureless grey putty. The formaldehyde that pervades the dissection studio is described so well you can almost smell it. The medical accouterments and computer displays give a compelling sense of seeing something you’re not supposed to, a look into the secret and guarded world of the high tech shaman.
“With no muscle tone or blood pressure the shapes of the body melt into featureless grey putty…“
As we process the macabre sights of the deceased we are introduced to a diverse group of students and faculty. The live bodies are as fascinating as the dead ones. Students describe what motivated them to study medicine. Some were patients themselves. Some came from wealth and privilege. Some faced death on a battlefield. All are extraordinary people from unique circumstances. Only the best make it to the Mayo Clinic School, so people who have always been far above average are suddenly for the first time surrounded by comparable peers and the notion of “average” is reset. Navigating this social adjustment is their first challenge.
Aspiring doctors cut and flay to see what lies beneath the skin, but also perhaps seeking something deeper. The film asks: are we after all just this complicated collection of gooey material? What engine sparks the self-awareness that drives us to question our place in the universe? Are we merely narcissistic talking monkeys or is this flesh a temporary vessel for an eternal spirit?
The deconstructed bodies are ultimately taken away for cremation, leaving behind both knowledge acquired and a keen sense of questions unanswered.
The First Patient presents a respectful, informative, and surprisingly emotional look at a taboo subject.
The First Patient (2018) Written and directed by Chip Duncan.
9 out of 10