“OK, it is time to move on,” my professor claps his hands together and yells above the chatter. We all look up from our Netter’s anatomy books and our cadavers. The smell of formaldehyde burns my nose as the fluorescent lights flicker above.
“We have explored the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity. It is now time to move onto the extremities, starting with the arms. I want you to unwrap the arms and study the anatomy of the arms and the hands. I’ll come by each group to go over exactly what I want you to do. Okay, everyone, let’s get started,” he says.
I turn to my group. “Who wants to do the unwrapping?”
“I’ll do it,” Eric says. He begins to slowly unwrap the right arm, taking care to carefully furl up the gauze. He moves onto the left arm, repeating the same motions. With each unfurl, we see more skin, and then we see the hands.
My heart skips a beat as I stare at the hands. The skin has a greyish pallor. The veins cross the thin, translucent skin like a spider web. The fingers are skinny and long, perfect for playing the piano. Each fingernail is perfectly shaped as if a visit to the nail salon had occurred right before death. Silence overtakes our group.
After a minute or so, Mike says, “The hands … they really are the scariest part of the body.” We all nod our heads in assent.
It dawned on me that we were all freaked out about seeing our cadaver’s hands because somehow the hands had humanized our cadaver. We had forgotten that our cadaver was not just a body but had once been a woman very much alive. Perhaps those hands had belonged to a mother, and had cradled her newborn child’s head. Perhaps those hands had belonged to a master artist and had performed the finest strokes with a paintbrush on a blank canvas. Or perhaps those hands had belonged to a scientist and had pipetted various bacteria onto a petri dish.
We would never know but somehow seeing the hands allowed us to imagine the person our cadaver had once been.
Karen Yeter is a rheumatologist.
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