Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Cadaver paper

I thought I would share one of my assignments with you. We had to write a paper for Medical Humanities about our cadaver. This will repeat some of the content of the August 3 post, but perhaps you will enjoy it anyway.

I was glad for the long orientation before the first Gross Anatomy lab, because I was afraid. I stood among my new friends around an object of some horror to me: a metal coffin—half gurney, half grave.

Outwardly I was very collected about this lab, because I am a Catholic Aristotelian. A Catholic knows that death is not our end, that the body is an inferior part which decays and will be regained miraculously. An Aristotelian knows there is substantial change, so a corpse is not a man and not of a man. No problems with dissection; no cause for fear.

Inwardly, I was a mess. I can’t say why. I have survived peers, professors, and relatives and never been so disturbed.

We opened the tank and raised the body. A skeletal figure showed through the towel, stiffened and slightly contorted. I saw the outline of a forehead, a nose, a chin. Arms, pelvis, legs. Then, I helped peel back the towel and I saw more. This body belonged to an old man: his skin was mottled on his arms and shoulders. His belly was sunken. I expect he lived some years in a nursing home. I spent a year or so of Sundays in a nursing home, visiting several residents. I was close to one woman in particular. She had the same skeletal frame and mottled skin.

He had a scar running along his midline, beginning four inches above his navel and curving around it. Someone suggested an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and my mental picture of this man’s life broadened, borrowing pieces from the story of my friend in the nursing home.

She came to the home following an ICU stay of two weeks for an emergency I can’t remember. “I died,” she would say when she told me the story. “I woke up and couldn’t remember any of it; I woke up and I was here.” She woke up with a colostomy. Later, they would remove all her teeth. She had not been outside in the intervening eighteen months. (Her family was not proactive about moving her home.)

But she was vibrant. She had been a WWII pilot’s wife and a Hollywood beauty. She had stories about Errol Flynn and D-Day (her husband flew over Normandy that day.) I sat enraptured whenever she talked. She like bright lipstick and nail polish. She loved art and history books. I loved her.

“People come here to die,” she observed one day. It was an uncharacteristic comment for her. I waited for her to say more, but she only repeated herself, then perked up again and asked me to read her WWII book aloud. A few weeks later, she died.

Maybe this man was like her: perhaps he changed his home and friends for a bed and CNAs. I’m sure he had a fantastic life story, and could tell of many sufferings.

In the lab, these thoughts did not erase my fear. I found some of my tankmates’ eagerness to dissect repulsive. Faced with any other body I would reverently pray. This seemed totally wrong.

But this man, like my friend who died, was generous. And I accept his gift—though not with ease—because of something my friend told me the last time I saw her. That Sunday, I told her I was accepted to medical school, and she began to cry. “Be a good doctor,” she charged. And I begin now.

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