When we pulled back the crimson tarps, other than his abnormally impressive endowments, Mr. S did not strike me in the profound fashion I had anticipated upon witnessing a cadaver up close for the first time. After some reflecting (and a brief self-doubt as to whether I possessed sociopathic tendencies), I concluded that this was due to the acceptance that death is a very natural part of life and seeing its consequences ceased to stun me.
Having never had experienced the death of a loved one, and the fact that Mr. S was a complete stranger lying before me, made it extremely easy for me to become comfortable with his state of being. Aside from evoking the humbling gratitude of such immense sacrifice, I could not bridge the powerful connection with my “first patient”—unlike many of my fellow classmates—to experience that visceral rawness of a human being lying completely bare and under the mercy of my hands (within the boundary of reason, of course). And in some ways, I did not linger much on it other than an obstacle in medical school that I easily (for once) passed.
Over the months and hours of chiseling away at his anatomy, I got to know Mr. S in a very intimate yet impersonal manner. I spent hours grumbling through layers of connective tissue and fat, snipping carefully away at fragile and robust fascia in the manner of an obsessive collector trying to preserve the perfect specimen, and exclaiming in marvel at his beautiful vasculature and nervous branches when they finally emerged. While I know nothing about who he was as a person when he was alive—his interests, his habits, his personality—I learnt that he had a really big heart (literally) and the problems that came with it, beautiful nerves and vasculature, and suffered from calcifications of his lower extremity joints.
Last week, we prepped for the nasal cavity dissection, and Mr. S’s face was split in half by our professors to reveal the relevant structures. I had long stopped looking at his face just in the way we stop noticing irrelevant but constant things in our lives, but in this moment, I felt a sense of cold and cruel unstripping of someone who was once so human and—alive. Perhaps it was the time spent laboring over his body or perhaps it was just getting so used to his presence, but I felt a sadness at this necessary scene. It felt somehow inhumane, that in this practical gesture, Mr. S was no longer human but merely a—specimen.
In some ways, unknowingly to me, Mr. S had become an integral and crucial piece in my life as a medical student, and it was in viewing a face that was no longer recognizable that I really understood how real he is—and how alive he is in our minds despite having been long gone.
And perhaps, in this, I have finally found the compassion for my first patient—the one who no longer is—to color his significance in my mural of life.