I consider myself a woman of science. I believe that a human exists as a collection of cells. I believe that the depth of our emotions runs only as deep as our cisterns of neurotransmitters. I believe that birth and death are neither miracles nor tragedies, but parts of the natural circle of life.
Yet like many people, I have a hard time separating a person from their body. My left brain cringes at my belief in a “soul.” Despite this, each day I stand before a cadaver and wonder about the life that once pulsed through the veins of the many cadavers lining the anatomy lab. Some died young — only a year older than me. Most died well into their 80s and 90s — some were over 100.
The donor on our table died of metastatic pancreatic cancer. I confess, cancer has never been of much interest to me, but after peeling an 18-inch mass off of the transverse colon and finding tumor everywhere I looked, I see the appeal. Cancer is a foe worthy of any clinician’s prowess.
This was not my first encounter with a dead body, but it was my first time cutting into one. I made sure to be the first in my group to make an incision, taking the plunge before I had time to get nervous.
I dragged my blade along the donor’s back and I couldn’t help but whisper, “Sorry.”
In the weeks that followed, I probed the chambers of the heart, tracing the path of circulation and wondered what had made this heart quicken in life.
I examined the feet, attempting to commit the musculature to memory and thought about the places those feet had traveled.
These were not the thoughts of a scientist. A cadaver neither hears apologies nor needs them. Quickening of heartbeats from psychological or social stimulation is minimally relevant to the structure of the organs. Where feet had traveled is inconsequential unless they suffered trauma.
This behavior of apologizing to a dead body, this curiosity of how it functioned in life does not support my supposition that I am “a woman of science” or help me learn the anatomy this donor meant for me to learn. Or does it?
The anatomy lab is the only time that a first-year medical student has this much time with a “patient.” Yes, learning the organs and physical structures is a crucial part of our training. Gross anatomy, however, can teach us more than anatomical features — it also teaches budding physicians reverence for the human body.
No matter how injured, sick or healthy the human body, it is an object to be revered. That body held a person once. Somebody’s somebody. The donor on the table before us had thoughts, feelings, triumphs and tribulations. They may have responded to such experiences with any number of behaviors that could be evident on the body.
To help a patient heal, a physician must respect the individual as both a collection of anatomical structures and as an emotional being. The anatomy lab teaches budding clinicians this requisite reverence. It teaches us how to practice medicine. And anyways, isn’t that one of the most beautiful sciences of all?