My 20 year medical school reunion is coming up soon. I am sharing my thoughts and reflections on my training in this post–
I don’t know your name. But would it have mattered? I would have treated you exactly the same way as I did. It is possible though that knowing your name would have made you more human than I would care to accept. Not knowing your name made everything so much easier. It was the best way to maintain the distance I needed. But what about your wishes? your needs? I never considered them. I blocked them, never wanting to go down that road.
I was selfishly satisfied with your quiet consent. You had offered yourself as a noble sacrifice and then my curiosity trumped all emotions. I wish I had expressed my gratitude. I wish I had said a prayer for you. I wish I had acknowledged.
Now 25 years later, when I can still remember your face and the wiry silver beard, I realize fully how much you gave to me. Every week for a few hours , I was spending time with you, studying you closely, learning all about you. You gave the knowledge I so craved, you gave me the confidence I was so lacking.
I had often wondered what your story was. The beginning and the end. I feel guilty for having prolonged your end or at times triumphant at your immortality. Sorry I didn’t let you sign off right at the end and you were made to stay longer.
Your short cropped silver hair gave away what your age may have been. You lean body, told me that perhaps you had a hard life or a slow painful end. The lack of fat on you was the envy of the group next to me. You didn’t have any scars or missing body parts. You, Cadaver #9, and I , young medical student and the connection between , a shiny sharp scalpel.
You helped me start a journey that I am still on today. My eyes that used to burn with formalin vapors that preserved you are well trained to assess human suffering and pain. Although I never closely studied your expression, these eyes of mine have mastered that skill.
You were the very first among the countless others who helped a naive, neophyte medical student into a self assured physician.
My hands did shake the first time I put an incision in your leathery thick skin. You seemed like you were carved from wood, much like the Indian that is sometimes standing outside the cigar shops. The cut didn’t lead to any bright red blood, the hallmark of life. It was comforting to know I was not inflicting any physical pain on you. Because of your permission to cut you repeatedly, I was hold to hold a scalpel steady at my first surgical procedure and make a cut in a warm breathing human body.
It was awkward and distressing for the first few weeks. The smell of the anatomy lab was strong and lingering. It had permeated into my unconscious. I often had haunting dreams of you.
Given how unreal you looked, it was easy to arrive in the lab and focus on a certain “body part”. Bit by bit as me and my six other colleagues worked on you, you hardly had any skin left. We would be so enthralled by the details we would find inside you as we uncovered fascinating anatomical displays.
The blood vessels, the nerves and the organs. All were there just like the anatomy dissector text had said.
I clearly remember rejoicing as I had neatly dissected all five branches of the facial nerves after hours of meticulous cutting.
I remember having a hard time eating after the first few times of dissection and then I got numb to the idea that I was in the presence of a dead human and would shortly after the class dig into meaty curry at the cafeteria. The gloves would often get greasy from the body fat and we would sometimes be sloppy with the white coats that got some grease on them. My mother however, always had them washed separately and treated them like the plague.
You must have had a story, that I was never privy to as I looked into your abdominal cavity carefully assessing each and every organ. I was always respectful and kept you at least partially covered as I worked on you.
The relationship of a medical student to their cadaver is perhaps a single odd and unique relationship that can be had in this world. Working with cadavers is a lesson, not just in anatomy but life and death. Death an essential part of medical training, a force that every physician fights against and humbled by.
We all work to sustain life but it does all start with a wooden silent dead body known as the cadaver, In my case, Mr. Body # 9. Thank you sir! I and my countless patients thank you for your sacrifice.