Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Anatomy: Reverence for the Body

Source. (Not our school's lab.)
Yesterday I got an email inviting me to participate in a program my medical school has for the M2s, a teaching opportunity in the anatomy lab. This is a program by faculty recommendation; twelve of us were selected.

Last semester (as a new M1) I noticed the M2's rotating between tanks, helping groups find the phrenic nerve or the thoracic duct. The gunner in me thought gee, that would be cool, but my overwhelmingly negative feelings about anatomy lab made me never want to set a non-required foot in the place.

As I read the offer I had occasion to complete my thoughts about anatomy lab. Why did I have such a rough time in anatomy? One word...

rev · er · ence /ˈ rev(ə) rəns/

Noun:Deep respect for.
Verb: Regard or treat with deep respect.
n.  respect - veneration - esteem - obeisance - regard
v.  revere - venerate - respect - honour - honor - esteem

There was a great lack of reverence on two counts: first, the procedures performed on the bodies were often completely debasing and second, and the casual attitude taken by my peers was inappropriate.

I am deeply infused with a reverence for the body--not only the living body and its beauties and powers, but also the body of the departed, which is the body awaiting resurrection. Because we are body and soul and are not complete without both parts, the body is dignified with the future eternity it will share with the soul. Such a body is not to be treated like the body of another organism or like inorganic matter! It is to be respected and even treasured.


One sign of Catholics' eschatological view of the body is what we do with relics! We touch them, kiss them, honor them, love them. I have kissed the relic(s) of St. Thomas at least twenty times at TAC--probably more, since I did before almost every exam at the regular blessings at the end of the semester. I kissed the gloves of St. Gianna Molla at a CMA conference; I kissed the reliquary of a (relatively) obscure Norbertine saint when I spent a few days in Tehachapi. And recently I kissed a relic of St. Francis of Assisi.

Why do we venerate relics? These are the bodies of our brethren! Let us greet them cordially until we can embrace them in heaven.

Back to anatomy: these twenty bodies belong to my brethren, deserving as much respect as would my body. What unnecessary indignities we subjected them to! Not only cuts, but careless remarks and uncouth language.

Why didn't everyone react like I did? I propose that there was probably more of this feeling than showed. If I, who am steeped in reverence, tried not to show it, certainly some who had smaller urges also suppressed them.

I also propose that there is a general coarsening of the body in our day. This, of course, is no news to Catholics who know the names of popes Pius VI and John Paul II. The devaluing of our bodies is most proclaimed in the arenas of contraception, abortion, marriage, etc. I would like to add an arena which, while not overlooked, is less popular: horror video games. Studying after hours in the lab one day, I exchanged a few remarks with a male peer. Breaking my facade, I asked him how he could stand this. He shrugged. "I guess it doesn't faze me" (I am paraphrasing) "I play a lot of video games." What kind of doctor will this man become? Will he pay the bodies of his patients due reverence? In the past centuries, people may have seen a lot of death and decay, but in our time these sights are common in entertainment. The result: cheapening of the body, medical students thinking about cadavers like dead cats and doing lab with more thought to their own time than the dignity of the remains of another.

An archbishop blessed an anatomy lab.
What's the solution? Probably not "stop dissecting." But we could take steps to reduce irreverence. Surely we can study the human body without simultaneously disparaging it.

So maybe I'll take up the teaching offer; maybe I can make a difference.


  1. Just setting a good example yourself will go a long way ... thee are others with you who havent developed their opinions on this fully and are open to teaching on it - take advantage of this moment in time with them.

    I work with perinatal loss patients (death by natural causes) and when I took over, they were not disrespectful to the deceased babies but neither were they reverent..I was able to institute small changes so that now they all get bathed, dressed and bundled in blankets. I expected our Histology dept (where anyone <20 weeks goes) to give me trouble and make fun of me but they have been very kind and accommodating. I went down there to tend a baby after an autopsy and after I bathed, bandaged and dressed the baby, the lab lady said "It is so nice, that thing you do"...how sweet, she didnt even have a name for it.

    So go ahead and swim against the current ... you will make a difference that you will never know about this side of heaven...or someday there will be a guy on "The Journey Home" saying "there was this guy in medical school, he showed such reverence for the bodies in anatomy lab...it was my first exposure to the sacred..."

    1. Tammy, thank you so much for commenting. I am so grateful for what you do in perinatal loss and really edified by the changes you instituted.

      You may have just tipped the scale toward my participation in this program. I had equally strong pro's and con's until I read your comment and realized how important this might be. God reward you! I had a spiritual director who once illustrated to me that God influences us through little things (like your comment, or like my reverence); she called it "the chain of 'yes'," which began with Mary, has its basis in Christ, and has continued in every act of obedience and intercession since. You have contributed a link today!

  2. Before I read Tammy's comment, just as I finished reading your post, I was thinking the same thing: how good it would be to actually have some position of influence or authority over the lab. It makes it much easier to set a tone for others. Now you do indeed have that opportunity, if even just in a small way. I totally agree that sometimes it takes only a small act or word to have an enormous impact. You cannot truly imagine what a difference even your smallest acts can have on another soul. Thank you for your reverence. I do so hope you decide to participate in the program. Thank you, Tammy, for all you do in your work also.

  3. It's funny how small details can make an impression. Years ago (like the late 1980s) a nurse who knew I was a practicing catholic suggested we say a prayer for a patient who had just died. The patient had been admitted through the ED, gone straight to surgery, and died in the ICU without ever regaining consciousness -- so the nurse never knew her in life, yet out of charity realized that no Christian should die without the prayers of the Church. At that moment, the nurse and I were the Church for that lady. The nurse's example has stayed with me all these years.

    1. Thank you for your comment, stpetric! I am amazed by your story and the truth it reveals--only a few people, present seemingly by chance, can be placed at an important time to dispense the treasuries of the Church...wow.

      I read a similar story in a little book I sorted at TAC's library once, as part of a huge donation. It was a pocket guide to the Catholic physician published in the early 1900s. It had norms for extraordinary and conditional baptisms and decision trees (get this) for administering the Eucharist, etc. The particular story I'm remembering was told by a doctor who thought on a whim that he should check on a certain Catholic woman about to deliver, even though he wasn't required to. He came in to find her just delivered of a baby in severe distress and his eyes shot to a bottle of sterile water nearby--instantly he knew that he had been placed there so that this newborn could be baptized.

      I am so edified by everyone's experiences. God reward you!

  4. When I was 21 (1986) I worked as an in a Peds ICU and was not yet Catholic. I was single, most interested in living in the word and dating cute guys. A coworker was another very young woman, a life-long Catholic who had a wonderful generous peace about her.

    We had a young teen patient who was completely paralyzed, so he could not DO anything but he was conscious and could feel. She had gone on vacation and brought back for him a bag of seashells....she put each one in his hand and wrapped his hand around the shells...each had a different shape and texture to experience.

    I was so struck at the kindness of this simple act...that she would think so deeply about this young man while all her contemporaries (me included) were pretty saturated in thinking only of ourselves. That moment was powerful for me...it took me about 3 more years to get on the road to Rome and almost 3 years to convert. I never told her how her act of kindness affected me.

    Another story about her was that she fell in love with a nice young Doctor who was not (from what I know) raised with any strong faith. As she planned thier wedding, she learned that he had moonlighted at abortion clinics right after graduating from medical school. I only ever heard her speak of it once...it was simply not a moment of great drama in their lives...she just said "you wont be doing that any more" and that was that. God can do His work in the most gentle and loving of ways sometimes.

    1. Tammy, this image will stay with me--this nurse, in a way, took this patient with her to the beach, making his concerns her own. Yet, like you said, a very simple action. Really, her example is Christ-like in selflessness and in simplicity. (On an aside: I am so glad you came into the Church!)

      Thank you so much for commenting, I really gain a lot from it. Have a great weekend.