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The Greatest Gift

My partner and I were about to practice wrapping fake injuries on each other’s arms when it happened: I passed out.

We were in a first aid class and had just watched a video of someone getting glass stuck in their arm. The glass and blood looked fake, but for some reason the scene got to me — though I’m sure the fact that I had nothing to eat or drink all morning had something to do with it, too. I was mortified. Not only did I pass out from a video of someone with an obviously fake injury, but I was also wearing a T-shirt with the word “pre-med” written on it.

Essentially I was advertising that I was a pre-med student who fainted at the sight of blood.

And though I’ve never exactly loved blood and guts, it had never really bothered me before. After passing out, I began to have doubts about my true level of squeamishness. So when it came time to go into the anatomy lab for the first time as a first-year medical student, I was nervous that I would be “that person” — the person who passes out the first time she walks into lab.

I made sure to eat and drink plenty prior to the lab on the first day so that my blood sugar would be high enough, though I was still nervous that would not be enough to prevent me from fainting. It was just one of the many worries that followed me all that day, along with how well I would do on the pre-lab quiz and whether or not I would know what I was doing.

Most of these fears subsided after the first day of anatomy lab. It honestly was not that bad — not even when I had to flip the cadaver over, which I thought would make my stomach churn but actually just felt like rolling over a rather juicy and heavy lump. And even though I really disliked lab — it was time-consuming, I was constantly confused, all the cadavers smelled awful — I tolerated it.

Then, about halfway through the course, we began to dissect the head and neck. I learned that my cadaver had apparently suffered a very painful death, as evidenced by the amount of blood in the esophagus and lungs. The pancreatic cancer had spread pretty extensively in his abdomen as well. It was not a pretty sight.

This information did not sit well with me. Although I already knew that my cadaver had died of cancer, I had tried not to think about how much pain it had caused. In truth, up until that point I had not really thought much about this man’s life — I had tried to stay detached. Though I had learned so much about his body throughout the weeks of dissection, I did not really know anything about who he was, not even his name. It was easier to think about him simply as a cadaver, not as a person. Up to this point it had been pretty easy, but once I learned about his painful death everything changed for me.

I began to really think about the person, not the cadaver, and it unsettled me. With the exception of my first time, I had been able to walk into lab easily, without any jitters. Now I was filled with doubts once more; it was almost as if I was entering the anatomy lab for the first time all over again.

It did not help that the face felt the most personal out of the whole dissection. Faces are what we as people look at every day, and are how we are known and defined by other people. It is well known that our brains are hard-wired to look for faces, and people spend a majority of their time focusing on faces every day. Faces are how we convey emotions, how we communicate with each other. Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the face is how the eyes communicate that soul to the world.

When we began to cut into his face, I felt like we were completely destroying him — making him less human.

And even though I had been cutting into his body for a while, he had still been mostly intact. He may have been missing some organs here and there, but his missing parts were easy to cover up. As we were dissecting the face, it became harder and harder for me to cover him up in the same way.

I knew we were not actually hurting him in any way. After all, when someone dies, the part of them that makes them a person is no longer in the body. But with his head literally in half, he became unrecognizable as a human being.

For me, it was all incredibly unnerving.

For a while, I could not stop thinking about him, even outside of the anatomy lab. This man had a whole life that to this day I know nothing about. I can make guesses, but they certainly would not do him justice. I know nothing of his life. His personality. His family.

Our cadavers are not just tools to learn anatomy — they are people, with lives and stories. We as students may make jokes during the endless hours of dissection or get frustrated in anatomy lab, but at the end of the day, our cadavers are the first patients with which we have the opportunity to interact and learn. They are the first people who trusted us with their bodies, though they certainly won’t be the last.  While it is easier to try to distance yourself in dissections, in treating patients it probably does not make the best practice.

Walking into the anatomy lab that first day, I was worried about all the wrong things: I was worried about myself. I was worried that I would pass out, or not know the material, or cut through an important structure. Not once was I concerned about the man that I was actually cutting into. The man who gave me his life — the biggest and greatest gift he could possibly give — all so that I could become a caring and empathetic doctor.

Emily Ribeiro Emily Ribeiro (3 Posts)

Contributing Writer

University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine

Emily was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, received her bachelors in Human Physiology from the University of Iowa in 2014, and her MD at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2019. She most recently completed her pediatrics residency at Nemours Children's Hospital in 2022. In her free time, she enjoys reading, swimming and doing puzzles.