Sample Essay: Harvard Medical Essay 4

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Archeology Thesis Analyzing Bones of Prehistoric Woman

As part of my senior thesis, I learned the remarkable story of a woman. I learned her story not through words but through her bones. My thesis consisted of cataloging, collecting data and analyzing a skeletal collection, consisting of this woman and approximately twenty-five other Chugach Eskimo excavated in the 1930's. They were to be reburied as part of the mandated repatriation of Native American remains. I volunteered to catalog the collection by myself to gather data for my senior thesis. These data now serve as the permanent record for the collection at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

This woman, known simply to me as Palutat Cave B-1, gradually unfolded to me the extraordinary story of her life by letting what remained of her body speak for her. She was a battered woman. Her bones bore the marks traditionally associated with battering. She had three healed wounds in the back of the skull, believed to be the result of her attempts to escape her batterer only to be struck in the head from behind. From X-ray films, it was learned that her left forearm had also been broken (parry fracture) as she attempted to ward off blows. It is very possible that she was battered much more often than her wounds indicate. Clearly only a small fraction of blows are strong enough to leave their mark on the skeleton. At some point, infection entered the wounds to her left forearm, and osteomyelitis set in. The osteomyelitis became severe and spread to her wrist and elbow. Somehow, she managed to live for at least another year. Eventually there was complete ankylosis of the carpals, and virtually all cortical bone in the radius and ulna was lost. Thus her forearm was rendered dysfunctional. During that time, her left humerus and scapula underwent substantial disuse atrophy, a clear indication that the arm was of no use to her. Instead she used her teeth to hold objects and assist in the performance of daily tasks, as shown by the greatly increased amount of wear on her incisors. Yet somehow, she managed to live to the age where the protein-rich diet of the Chugach takes it toll in the form of osteoporosis. Probably unrelated to previous trauma, her T12 vertebra had collapsed. Although aging an archeological sample is more art than science, she most likely died in her thirties.

After sixty years in the University Museum, Palutat Cave B-1 is now at home and at peace in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in a cedar coffin made by her descendants. I am grateful for the extraordinary opportunity I had to learn part of her story. Although it is difficult to speculate about temperament or attitude, this woman must have been strong and determined to have survived as long as she did. Her life was clearly filled with physical pain. As I put together her story, I began to feel for this woman who had struggled so hard to survive. It was a strange feeling to be able to piece together this woman's story of pain by the scars it had left on her bones. I felt both impressed by this woman who had survived so much and excited for having been able to extract so much information from bones alone. I had enjoyed it, but in the end, I could do nothing to help her. My experience with Palutat Cave B-1 and the rest of the Chugach collection has given me a great respect for the ability of the human body to adapt to adversity. I saw firsthand the results of the skeletal system's response to stressful conditions: trauma, disease, and inadequate nutrition. I am still amazed at the efficiency of the skeletal system and its incredible ability to deal with adverse conditions.

To a large extent, my choice to become a physician is rooted in my desire to continue to work with the human body. But I want to work with the living. I want to work with people I can help. As a physician, I will be able to assist the human body in the healing process. Though my work with the Chugach collection inspired me to learn more about the human body, it lacked the element of genuine human interaction. This is a feature of medicine I have found to be especially appealing in my experience since graduating from Penn. I want to continue to learn and to discover more about the human body through work with people and through the study of medicine.

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