Dissection is as much exploration as it is self-evaluation

We had our first human dissection recently. We gloved up, scrubbed up, and wielded a scalpel – the key to opening the secrets hidden below our skin.

Our donor, an older gentleman who died of cancer and gave his body to the advancement of medical education, lay on his back. He was abnormally frigid and unnaturally rigid – cold and stiff to the touch. His face remained shrouded with a white cloth.

I stood, for the first time ever, in front of the manifest dichotomy of life and death. Yes, the man was deceased, but he still lay preserved as a symbol of a life lived.

What life had he lived? Was he a wise grandfather with wrinkles that deepened whenever his granddaughter made him grin? A spouse to a loving partner with whom he shared his halcyon years? Did he have a favorite song that reminded him of that middle school dance where he stole a kiss from Sally? Or was it Jenny? I wonder if he could remember.

He lay at the precipice of a life beyond and a life forgone. He was waiting for us — waiting for us to learn. A teacher who gave his life for students he had never met. Few causes can be as selfless.

Dissect, we are told, and so we dissect, fumbling tools and maneuvering skin folds in order to reach the muscles we’re supposed to visualize in the times we are sandwiched between. I wonder about other schools that have gravitated from dissection to prosection and digital models to keep pace with the times. Will their students have the same appreciation that I may develop?

As I explore his body, I can’t help but dissect myself. Do my muscles look like that? Do I have that much fat on top of them? If I felt my spinous processes, would I notice a lordosis, kyphosis, or, perhaps, some scoliosis from all that stooping I do while studying? Could I die of the same thing he did?

It’s hard not to realize your own mortality as you slice into someone else’s. The truth is, dissection is as much exploration as it is self-evaluation; an exercise into equal depths muscles and memories, fascia and fears, bone and being.

Perhaps that is the greatest gift these donors offer.

For that, and more, I thank them.

Roheet Kakaday is a medical student who blogs at The Biopsy.

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