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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  • http://www.twitter.com/randyran Randy Bunker

    Thanks for your post. Very interesting perspective / reflection. I’m a web guy, not a med student or med professional, but really am touched by your appreciation and empathy for the once vibrant (I’m assuming) life that now awaits your scalpel. All the best to you.

  • rezmed09

    You’ve brought back a lot of memories and a similar sense of gratitude. It is hard for people in the community to fathom the value of such a gift.

  • ninguem
  • ninguem

    I took a final exam once in med school, they wanted to spread us out to prevent any hinto of cheating off someone else’s paper. So the classroom wasn’t big enough. They shuffled us off to various rooms, I went off with a few people to an extra classroom used for storage.

    As I’m writing the final, I noticed the shelf next to me was stacked with canisters, and my cadaver was now ashes, ready for a special cemetery plot the school maintains in memory of our donated cadavers.

  • http://bittersweetmedicine.com/ Dr Lemmon

    I appreciated that.

  • Laurel

    Thanks for that – it’s a great perspective. After my dad died, he wanted his body donated to a medical school which we did. My dad would have loved your post and would have appreciated all the jokes the students probably made, too, as he had a great sense of humor. He was a science teacher at an elementary school and very curious so if it were possible, I’m sure he would have enjoyed watching his own dissection! About a year or so later, my mom got his ashes back in the mail which was pretty funny in a dark sort of way. She kept them in the garage “because that was his favorite place” until I could visit that summer. We took the ashes out to the cemetary and had them buried on top of my brother’s grave (my family is very frugal!).

  • http://www.silvercensus.com/ Steffan Lozinak

    I think this is absolutely awesome! Heh, I wish people gave this kind of appreciation to their food :)

  • d

    What?! A pre-medical student working on a cadaver? I never did that!

  • Matt S.

    “I suppose that an anatomical specimen indirectly saves more lives than a body donated for organs, because cadavers are necessary for proper medical education”

    For someone who’s pumping the growth of organs on cellulose matrices and the death of analog, that’s a pretty old school thing to say.

  • http://drpullen.com Edward

    Beautifully written. I have planned to become a cadaver in the end since my gross anatomy class in med school.

  • http://www.notebookingdiscovery.org/wordpress Alice Robertson

    quote: I wonder if I will age more slowly, thanks to the formaldehyde.
    …end quote

    My toxicologist friend who works in the Coroner’s Office said if you drink too much Diet Coke you need less embalming fluid. A lady who works at a local funeral home claims Diet Coke drinkers only need about half the fluid others do. So, is it fair to deduce that the Diet Coke drinkers of the world are making a tiny type of donation to society, and keeping their cadaver ummm…..green……ya’ know saving the planet from more unnecessary gases? :)

    On the bright side you are in good company because your details of the organs means a cannibal would have loved to meet this cadaver. They would have been grateful for completely different reasons! :)

  • Francine

    Am enormously pleased by the sensitivity
    and humor of this letter. Thanks for sharing it.
    Please see your email for a longer comment.
    I do think you should check out “Stiff” by M. Roach.
    Can’t wait to see where your interests and
    observations lead you to contribute back to the world community.

  • Chacko

    This is creepy, funny, weird, gross, and beautiful all in one.

    But mostly it’s just deep — in every sense of the word. Nice job. I think you’re going to make an excellent doc.

  • Bananamama

    Wonderful, deep, heartfelt writing. I think your writing would go to waste if you became a doctor :)

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