DISSECTING A HUMAN

As a first-year medical student, you take a year of anatomy lecture and lab, which includes several hours per week dissecting and studying a cadaver. I have no idea what made me remember all these thoughts on the subject, but here they are. It may seem graphic/grotesque at times.
  1. Dissecting a human cadaver is hands-down the weirdest thing I have ever done.
    I don't think I'll ever top it, nor do I want to.
  2. I remember on the first day of class eight years ago, my anatomy professor explicitly forbid us from ever naming our cadavers.
    He never explained why, but I imagine it is because the more you think of your cadaver as human, the harder it is to slowly cut them up over the course of a year.
  3. But it's really hard NOT to think of your cadaver as a human being, given they are one, and they're lying right in front of you, naked, staring at you (okay maybe not staring -- more on this later).
    My group and I secretly named our cadaver Daisy. She was so NOT a Daisy in my opinion, but it was a pleasant name, so I went with it. I thought it would make the whole experience easier.
  4. We were also instructed to always keep a moist towel on the face while dissecting (and anything else we weren't dissecting), except when we were working on the face itself.
    If we were working on the face, we were encouraged to keep every part of the face we weren't working on covered, which was for three reasons: 1) to keep the tissue from drying out, 2) to be respectful of the cadaver, and 3) to not get spooked by the cadaver's eyes, which everyone was convinced were looking right back at them. Daisy's eyes were gray. I couldn't tell if it was from being preserved or because she had senile cataracts.
  5. We weren't really told anything about our cadavers except their age, cause of death, and that they personally, or their families, chose to donate their bodies to the medical school.
    My cadaver lived to the ripe old age of 98 and died from hypertensive heart disease. She was the only East Asian cadaver out of the 30 that were in the lab (the rest were white or black). All of them were above 65-years-old, except for one cadaver that was 47.
  6. She was obese.
    I wondered if she ate a Western diet. Was she first generation? Second? Third? Was she from New Jersey (where my school was)? What did she do for a living?
  7. I wondered if she chose to donate her body, or if her family did.
    And if her family did, were their reasons altruistic? Or was it what my anatomy professor told me (that over half of the cadavers were donated by family members who couldn't afford to pay for a funeral)? And why did I even care?
  8. I never liked using the word cadaver to describe the body that once housed the life of the person I dissected and studied for a year.
    I think it is dehumanizing and minimizes the contribution that person made to furthering the education of every medical student, and the impact they probably had on the world, whether big or small. But I understand that it can be helpful to deny their humanity in order to digest the fact that you're cutting up a person layer by layer.
  9. I remember feeling that the whole dissection experience, especially the first day, was so surreal. We had to cut open the plastic bag our cadavers were in. I remember the mix of yellowish preservative fluid and what could only be human juices spill out onto the stainless steel table like a marinade that should've never been invented.
    I was mortified. I gagged and had to excuse myself when I was expected to not react. Here is the body of another person lying in front of me, cold, moist, dead, and therefore motionless. And I am expected to mutilate it, for my own gain. At the time, I had a really hard time accepting that there wasn't a better way to learn anatomy (in retrospect, it was invaluable; there aren't any synthetic models good enough or that would remotely compare).
  10. I didn't make a single cut the entire first week. My surgical stainless steel dissecting tools remained shiny, still in their original wrapping.
    I let one of the more eager members of my five-person group start the dissection. I couldn't bear to put the blade to Daisy's skin, even in the most respectful way possible.
  11. When I finally did cut, I wanted to stop. It felt wrong. I had to apply more pressure than I thought I would based on what I'd seen in movies. It made it seem so deliberate. It was impossible to do it quickly. Her skin was tougher than I expected, or my scalpel blades weren't sharp enough.
  12. I was exhausted after the first day of dissection, mentally and physically.
    There was a lot of standing, hunching, and lifting heavy, limp limbs involved, as well as a lot of mental energy expended on having to tell myself to keep going. I considered quitting medical school.
  13. That first night, I heated up a bowl of beef stew my mom had made, thinking I would feel better with some homemade comfort food in my belly, but when I raised the spoon to my mouth, I dropped it immediately. It splattered everywhere.
    The smell of Daisy and the preservative used to keep her from decaying had seeped through my gloves and into my hands. I tried raising the spoon up again but the smell emanating from my hands was too intense. I couldn't get rid of it with any amount of soap or scrubbing. I got so desperate I tried lemons, Febreeze, and even bleach on my bare hands. Nothing worked. I gave up on eating that night, and gave up on red meat completely since then. The texture is too reminiscent of human flesh.
  14. We had 24 hour key access to the lab to study, though I never went to the lab at night, not even to cram with half my class the night before a big practical exam.
    The lab was creepy enough during the day, and had no windows; I had no desire to be there at night too.
  15. I became superstitious for the first time in my life.
    What if the cadavers came alive at night? What if Daisy could feel every cut? What if she was cursing me and damning me to hell? What if this was an especially twisted version of hell, and I was the executioner of her punishment?
  16. Eventually, I looked forward to anatomy lab. I felt like Daisy and I bonded, if you can bond with a body.
    I apologized to her quietly when I turned her and it didn't go so smoothly. Or the day we had to practice pelvic exams (😔). And especially after the few weeks we spent working on her back, only to find that her nose had gotten smushed from being face-down for so long.
  17. I imagined she had a big heart, to match her actual heart.
    Her heart was huge (way bigger than a grapefruit) and confirmed her cause of death. The anatomy professor used her heart for the next practical exam for the class. During practical exams, we had to circle around from cadaver to cadaver each minute and identify the structure that he had placed a pin in). I remember that he pinned her chordae tendinae (her heart strings; I also remember being in awe that those were a real thing & not just part of a common figure of speech). Her's were perfect.
  18. The scariest thing that ever happened was the day I walked in and removed her covers to find her head had been sawed open and the top of her skull and brain were gone.
    I screamed. My anatomy professor explained that he "harvested" all the cadaver brains over the weekend for a different class. Daisy's brain was now floating in one of six buckets, each containing five brains. I'd never know which one was hers. All of those people's memories were floating together, jumbled up, like something out of a horror movie.
  19. The next 30 min was full of gasps and screams and classmates trying to warn each other as people trickled into the lab. I was angry, and so were my classmates. He was an excellent teacher, but he was desensitized from teaching anatomy for 20 years. I told him he should've warned us. He apologized to the class.
  20. There were so many other weird things about that class that moved me in unexpected ways. Is there anything weirder that's as socially acceptable? I'm not really sure.
  21. One of my patients (Mrs. H, from this list: WHY I'M GIVING TIME FOR GIVING TUESDAY) recently asked me about my experience in class and if I thought she should donate her body to the medical school at the University of Hawaii.
    I told her it was an invaluable, but a weird and lengthy experience (most schools dissect the cadavers over a year), but the learners and teachers were respectful of the cadavers, and if she wanted to do it, I would support her. She stressed to me that her beliefs meant her body was just that: a body. She didn't need it after she died or care what happened to it except that she would be helping people instead of taking up space in the ground.
  22. The only thing I think is a shame (and this is just me) is that the students lucky enough to one day have her won't know how great she was.
    But that means they'll learn, which would be a fulfillment of her wishes.