It is exactly eight weeks into anatomy, nine days into the dissection of the head and neck and 45 minutes into Tuesday morning’s anatomy lab and we are all searching for a place of solace.
None of us were prepared for the dissection of the face. As my lab partner, Simon, chisels a clumsy mid-sagittal chasm between the front teeth of the body lying before us, we brace for that moment of destruction when anatomic perfection turns into carnage.
At the beginning of the semester, we found comfort in our own disgust: a visceral reassurance that we are not born mutilators or killers, but rather mere explorers in the name of science. At this point in the course, no one seems to mind that dead bodies surround us. We talk about weekend plans and what we’re going to have for lunch. We diligently push forward with our exploration, slapping on a brave face as we stew in our self-affirmations.
With the pliers, Simon now makes a go at the hard palette. Kim and I pull on either side of the chasm. Suddenly, Simon cries out in pain as a metal piece flies out of the body and skids to a halt at the end of the table. Simon clutches his hand, a jagged tear in his glove and a trickle of blood creeping out.
Kim, descended from caregivers, yanks Simon’s glove off and shoves him toward the sink. Lab assistants flock to the scene, paperwork and emergency phone numbers fly out of plastic sleeves.
I pick up the jagged metal piece lying at the end of the table. A flesh-colored palette, with wire woven throughout. Dentures. Where porcelain tooth meets polymer gum, an inscription. A name spelled out in neat black type, an attempt to link property to owner provides a vital clue of our cadaver’s previous life.
This is not allowed. Forbidden information. We were told at the beginning of the course we should only know the date and cause of death of the donor to protect the patients, their families and ourselves. A name is too much information: a dangerous bridge between life and gore. Every intimate detail of the man’s anatomy intended to be the spotlight and the rest of his story is a darkened stage. Until now.
Kim returns to the table, puts on a new pair of gloves, asks if she missed anything. I shake my head a casual “no” and hand her a blunt probe. As she resumes dissecting, I scoot the dentures down the drain hole with a pair of forceps. They echo at the bottom of the biohazard bucket with a cold metallic rattle and then settle into silence.