A pre-medical student writes to her gross anatomy cadaver

A letter from a pre-medical student honoring her gross anatomy cadaver.

Letter to the other side
by Hana Low

Thank you for donating your body to science and medical education. It’s so generous to give yourself to those you will never meet. I hope you’re having a good time, up there or wherever you are.

Working with your body has made me acutely conscious of the dangers in my everyday environment. I have to cross three major streets to get to campus, and every day on my commute I wince at SUVs rushing by and think of how premature a cadaver I would be. I’ve become more aware of the foods I eat as well, and imagine the comments dissectors would make as they cut through greasy chocolate-derived lipid layers resting on my stomach.

I don’t know whether I would want to be a cadaver. It seems fair that if people gave their bodies for my education I should give mine back. I don’t know what else I would do in death, anyway. Maybe live on in others’ bodies as surrogate heart, liver, corneas. I would pursue both of these life-saving death goals if I could, but I don’t believe that is allowed. It would confuse the medical students profoundly to dissect a body that was missing all its vital organs. I suppose that an anatomical specimen indirectly saves more lives than a body donated for organs, because cadavers are necessary for proper medical education; if dissection cadavers are in short supply, students’ medical education suffers. Maybe the question of donating organs or an anatomical gift will be irrelevant by the time I am dying, anyway; we’ll be growing organs on cellulose scaffolding out of the patient’s own cells, and not need recycled organs. I suppose we’ll find out in a few decades.

I have the impression that my group mates think I am most somber. They tend to crack a lot of jokes when working on you, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I tend to be very quiet and serious. The presence of the dead makes me think that I should respectfully take off my hat and walk gravely around the room, as if in a funeral home. Before you, I had never seen a corpse, and I had only once confronted death, when I visited my great-grandmother near the end of her life. She had broken her coccyx and couldn’t sit in one place for a long time. She hadn’t gone outside in weeks, and her face was pallid and sunken. After she died, during the memorial service, her children and grandchildren got up and told stories about her that stuck in their minds, like the time when she cheated my 12-year-old father at Scrabble by spelling “muse” with a Z. We scattered her ashes in a meadow in Wyoming where she loved to vacation with her family. My dad took a film canister’s worth of ash and deposited it at the top of Brown’s Peak, in Wyoming’s Snowy Range.

You probably remember film canisters. I’m sorry if that offends you, but I think you preceded the Digital Generation. I don’t really know how old you were when you died. Preservation changes the body, discoloring the skin and toughening the flesh. Even your face was far from us, swathed in white bandages so we could sometimes forget that you were a real person. The old analog ways you remember are slowly fading. Kodak doesn’t even make slide film anymore, for goodness’ sake. I hope we find out more about you. I’m curious about what sort of life you lived, and to be frank, about what killed you.

I wrote an email to an osteopathic doctor here in town and mentioned that I was in anatomy block. He said to have a good time with it and to never again order roast beef. I heartily agree. I have been a vegetarian for a few months now but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a steak again, after having spent several hours cleaning your Pectoralis major of fat and fascia. The first day after dissection, I got a little queasy eating my lunch, and it was only grains and potatoes.

The funny thing about working with your body is that I’ve become a little embalmed myself. No matter how long I scrub my arms with exfoliating grapefruit scrub, the smell of embalming fluid never seems to go away. I’ll forget about it a while, then eat an apple and find that the smell seeped into the fruit skin, which makes my nostril hairs begin to protest again and my tongue to scowl. I wonder if I will age more slowly, thanks to the formaldehyde.

Thanks again for your gift. You have given me much to contemplate.

Hana Low is a pre-medical student.

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