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A medical student to her first cadaver: ‘The beauty and privilege of the moment’

February 09, 2017

When I look at you I see him. Yours was the second dead body I had seen in my life.

The first was my friend Neil’s, lying in a casket a year ago. Neil died at age 25, early in the morning after the 4th of July. You were 91 and died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was crossing the street late at night when a speeding police car, no flashing lights, hit him. They said his body flew 15 feet in the air like a doll.

You were a social worker and I imagine you were caring and generous. I know you donated your body to help inexperienced, scared medical students learn to become gentle, confident physicians. Neil was also caring, and so smart. He planned to get his PhD in physics, or engineering, and finish building a confocal microscope. I met him when I was the physics tutor for his class, but he was much better at physics than me.

Your hands, like his were at the end, are pale, cold and full of stitches from the medical examiner’s handiwork.

As we cut through your abdomen and remove fat and fascia I focus on each step. I find if I am focused I don’t think about how different Neil’s abdomen probably looked. Your organs are all beautifully intact; I expect his reflected the trauma of his death.

Holding your heart, I can think of nothing but the beauty and privilege of the moment.

The dissection takes us eight weeks, and for the first six, your face is hidden by a piece of cloth. This makes it easier for us to focus on your body, though your humanity is never far from our minds.

Yet when we finally reveal your face and look into your eyes I am truly queasy for the first time. I thought your eyes would be closed, as Neil’s were. But your blue irises stare back at me through cloudy lenses. I don’t remember the color of Neil’s eyes.

Removing the skin from your cheeks sends me reeling inside again, because I can picture the stitches down his Neil’s nose and across his cheek. Your face, like his, is slack, bereft of the lines of emotion that makes a face fully human.

I knew him, I knew his name, his smile, and the pain of his death. I will never know these things about you. I wonder who cried for you and who smiles at memories of you.

Grateful as I am to you for all you taught me, at the end of our eight weeks I was glad to be able to cover you back up, zip up the white bag that holds your body, and say goodbye.

I know that in the future I will see you in my patients, just as I saw Neil in you. I can’t carry every death with me, but I will carry yours and his.