"Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased by tales, so is the other."
-Sir Francis Bacon
Anatomy Lab is a rite of passage that no physician ever forgets. Human dissection begins during the first days of medical school. Unspoken questions well up. What does a cadaver look like? How will I react? How will I ever remember everything? What if I can’t deal with working on a dead body?
A cadaver feels more like cold, moist, heavy fabric than a person. The color is all wrong and the tissues are firm and unyielding. As the dissection continues, many of the features that we recognize as being "human" are lost, although the contours and the scaffolding remain. Three decades later, I have vivid memories of the intricate anatomy of "our" cadaver.
Each year, I try to spend a few afternoons helping students perform Head and Neck dissections while demonstrating surgical procedures and discussing clinical illnesses. The questions are earnest and the students stump me regularly. As we all ignore the fact that a dead person lies on a table between us, we discuss everything from cancer to cosmetic surgery.
Over the years, I had learned to disconnect the cadaver from the person. That attitude changed abruptly when one of my cancer patients announced that he had donated his body to Science. He hoped fervently that he would "end up in a cadaver lab teaching medical students
." I congratulated him, and hoped, fervently, that he would not. I marveled at his gift and thought of him often after he died just a few weeks later.
When classes began the following August, I approached the lab with dread. How would his presence change my ability to teach in this most unnatural of environments? I made the rounds through all of the dissection stations, stopping at each but always looking to see who was on the next table. It was eerie and a bit unnerving.
My patient was not one of the cadavers and I suspect his prior surgery made him unsuitable for a place on one of the tables. Nevertheless, I have approached the Anatomy Lab with a different attitude ever since.
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I'm a first-year medical student and we're well into our cadaver. I'll admit that during dissection I don't really connect to the cadaver as a person, although ironically we do get closer to them, physically, than any spouse of 50 years ever could. We are the only ones ever to run a finger down their spinal cord or azygous system of veins.
Inevitably though, hours after the dissection when the books are closed for the day, I feel grateful for the people who have donated their bodies for our education. It's a privilege to see the content of an anatomy text as the real content of a chest cavity, and their gift is not taken for granted.
Hi Dr Campbell - I am sorry about the loss of your patient. Being a doctor has to be a calling because I sure couldn't work on cadavers, but thank God for all the people that do.
It is admirable that people donate their bodies. Even that bothers me and I feel guilty for saying it.
It sounds like your patient and you had a good relationship and no doubt were mutually blessed with the encounters.
Speaking as a patient...it means a lot to have a caring and compassionate doctor. I have written about my doctors, how important they have been.
I could not imagine going through all the urological issues I have if it weren't for the wonderful care of my urodoc, partners and their staff.
I know it is shop talk and you get desensitized around things that would give most people pause.
It is interesting how life events can change our perceptions, continually teaching us a new lessons.
Your post was beautifully written