A reflection on a man’s life before dissection

Almost immediately, the heat from all of us “freshly minted M1s” dissipated, as did the smiles and excitement on everyone’s faces. The frigid temperature, mimicked the morbidity and mortality interlaced in the air. 38 metal containers. Each carrying the life of an individual who had passed on. Was I feeling dizzy because of the smell of formaldehyde or because of the overwhelming unease? Nothing could have prepared me for this.

The joys of having a last name towards the end of the alphabet: I make my way to the back of our graveyard. Slowly, but surely, each group began to lift the bodies of their donors out from the humidor. Per our instructor, given the additional weight the bodies had accumulated from the embalming fluid, the “stalky teammates” should take charge of bringing the body out. I’m not sure if I backed away because I knew my small frame would not be able to lift our donor, or because I was in too much of a state of shock to do something so mentally demanding at the time. I could feel myself aimlessly dissociating and slipping into a state of detachment from this former life, aimlessly searching the Netter’s Atlas to look at the structures … trying to remove myself from the situation—the complete opposite of what I swore I would do as a physician. I recognize I am in no way shape or form even 1/100th of a doctor yet, but was I already letting myself down by not being able to highlight and recognize the beauty in the midst of death and suffering and associated humanism?

I slowly grasped a scalpel. By my surprise, it only took three times for my shaking hand to slide the razor-sharp blade on. Like an assembly line, I assembled three more, and set them on our table. I had my body turned away from our donor, trying to pull myself together. When I had no excuse to be facing away from our donor anymore, I slowly turned around and approached the humidor.

A white, embalming fluid soaked sheet lay over our donor. I walked around to the other side. Male. Mid 70s-80s. His skin ashen, full but shriveled. His limbs were in unnatural positions from the way he was “stored.” We all looked at each other for who was brave enough to make the first cut. I turned and could see students eagerly starting slice away at the skin, fascia, and muscles. Meanwhile, all that I could think about was what we were about to destroy.

In just a few weeks, we were going to dissect—no dismantle and see the life of this man broken down before our eyes by our untrained, careless hands. What secrets would we find? Why was your life cut so short? Your body carries a story: Decades of life and memories, each leaving a mark somewhere along the way. The scars on your knee—a surgery or an accident? Your central line—cancer or infection? Your death—inevitable or unexpected? Your body is so graciously our puzzle to learn. As I began to delicately slice away at the skin and fascia, layer by layer, I was relieved to notice my “humanity” settle back in. He was cold as ice. He was stiff as a board. He was long gone. However, to me, he was present. Every care I made to preserve the integrity of his architecture was to preserve the integrity of his life. His life mattered, and even under my shaking, untrained hands, continued to matter.

Mami K. Sow is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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