I believe in dead people. I believe that they are generous and patient with me, and teach me things that I would never be able to learn on my own.
Learning gross anatomy in the human cadaver lab has become a rite of passage for medical students, but it is really a privilege, a devastatingly intimate experience that reaches far beyond the scope of science. My medical school receives bodies as donations. As a first-year medical student, I do not know much about the deceased, except perhaps their age and cause of death. But one thing I do know is that each of them dedicated their remains to science and education in hopes that useful information can be gleaned from the study of their post-mortem bodies.
I had been dissecting the back of my cadaver for the past week, with the body laid face-down. The best description I could give of it is that it looks like meat to me, all bones and flesh thrown together, slabs of inanimate muscle and grease laid slack on a stainless steel cart.
Today I flipped the body over to start my dissection of the chest. And for a few seconds, just a few seconds mind you, I looked at the cadaver’s face and imagined him alive. I saw someone’s grandfather. I imagined his widow, his children loving him and missing him, mourning him. And here I was, cutting through him and gouging his flesh with my fingers. I felt ashamed. Dissection is not all careful and intricate manual maneuvers as one might imagine. It is actually quite savage. I use scalpels to cut the skin, but I poke and shear with blunt scissors, and scratch and twist with my fingers to remove overlying fat and superficial muscle as I explore the intricacy of the human body. I throw away the smaller scraps in a regular trashcan.
So this former grandfather who laughed and cried and had so much longing and joys in life laid before me with his eyes shut, silent and still–and at that moment, it just hit me like a wave. But I did not let those emotions wash over me, did not let the mixture of gratitude, regret, sadness, and embarrassment be fully felt. Lab was for science. Sentiment would have to wait for its appropriate place and time. It’s the only way I know how to endure training in a field such as medicine, where I have been promised and forewarned of an intimacy with the fragility of life and with the inevitability of death.
Alone, away from the lab, in my silent room in front of my computer and with clandestine prose, I sit and allow a splash of the muted wave to reach the shoreline of my heart. The people who donated their bodies to my medical school’s anatomy lab–to my education–had given me a wonderful gift which I receive humbly and honor greatly, but which I believe I can never repay.
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