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The Human Behind the Body: A Medical Student’s Experience with Cadaveric Dissection

medical students dissecting a cadaver

The hardest part about dissecting Sir was when he no longer looked human. When we had cut and sawed and scraped to the point when I could not see Sir’s face — or a semblance of any face — I felt, for the first time, that I had taken something inviolable from him. How many smiles had illumined this face over the 79 years that it was still perceptibly human? What distinctly human joys and sorrows had this face conveyed throughout Sir’s life, even past the point of death, with the ineffable expression that greeted us when we first met him? This face — the only one that could prove he was still Sir — was gone.

I took solace in knowing that the gentleman who had voluntarily donated his postmortem body to the Maryland Anatomy Board — “Sir,” we called him — understood that this might happen, and nonetheless agreed to the donation. We wondered why. Was he passionate about scientific research? Medical education? Was he a physician or scientist himself? We pondered the possibilities at various moments throughout the seven weeks we spent dissecting Sir in the anatomy lab. But at the end of this experience, one of my lab partners summarized our speculations well: “Who was he? I don’t think that’s for us to say.” I shared that sentiment. Wonder as we might, Sir’s identity simply escaped our grasp. To reach for it felt both fruitless and dismissive of his individuality.

We did know one other thing about Sir besides his age, physical features and decision to donate his body: He died of multiple myeloma. The evidence of the disease startled us: He had numerous holes on his skull, and a surgically inserted metal plate to stabilize what we presumed were damages to his spinal column from the cancer cells. His organs otherwise revealed no overt signs of disease. It staggers me to think that we had explored every square inch of Sir’s internal and external body — something no one had ever done — and yet knew nothing about his personality, character or aspirations — the things that defined him as a person.

One may ask: Who is Sir apart from the remnants of his body that laid before us? Has Sir’s mind and therefore his identity survived physical death — as the major monotheistic religions posit — or has he fundamentally ceased to exist following brain death, a view held by identity theorists?  I could not resist wondering what my lab partners thought after we had disarticulated and bisected Sir’s head, opened his scalp, and removed his brain and placed it into a biohazard bag. Surely, we knew nothing about Sir or where he was now, even though we had seen the fine details of his brain and body more clearly than anyone ever had.

The incredible irony about dissecting a human cadaver in medical school is how little you can know about your cadaver and how profoundly they can impact you regardless of that reality. What troubled me about dissecting Sir’s face was that it felt like severing the only thing I thought I knew about him: that he was human. Even after we had sliced through all of Sir’s limbs and removed his organs, I could still take comfort in seeing the face of the man who donated his body for the sake of my education. Being cut off from the face that reminded me daily of our shared humanity made the last few days of dissection the most challenging.

I was surprised but relieved to find that some of my classmates felt similarly about the experience of cadaveric dissection. Though we connected differently with our cadavers, we shared each other’s respect for the dignity of their individual presences as we studied the minutiae of their bodies.

“The scariest part of anatomy was walking into the lab the first day with all of the cadavers still covered by the tarps. Seeing the outlines of familiar body parts we see on living people every day suddenly not living, not moving and under thick brown tarps was extremely disturbing,” one of my classmates wrote me in an email.

“However,” she continued, “once our cadaver was uncovered, I immediately felt better. I was able to see and appreciate the gift that this person freely gave to us, and knowing that she wanted us to learn with her made all my fears disappear. … Since that realization, any experience that made me uncomfortable also instantly brought back that deep and overwhelming sense of gratitude.”

Some, like me, also reflected on the significance of seeing their cadavers’ faces.

“When I first met my cadaver, I found out that she was an elderly Asian woman. … My cadaver reminded me of my grandma,” a different classmate wrote. “On some days, I saw the cadaver as more of a tool to learn the science of anatomy rather than as a human, but the days when we dissected the hands or the face brought me back to the humanity of the cadaver.”

A third classmate wrote, “Over time, I got used to cutting a human body and somehow began to forget that I was working on a human, since we had covered her face and were working on her limb muscles for a while. When we uncovered her face to dissect her head toward the end of anatomy, I was once again reminded of her humanity.”

Like Sir, each of these donors impacted students whom they had never met and knew nothing about. Each reminded us of the privilege of learning anatomy in a manner made possible only by their most intimate investments in our education. And each has moved us to see the human behind every body and patient — something we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.

“[Our cadaver] was my very first teacher in medical school,” says my classmate. “I appreciate her sacrifice, and I will always remember her.”

Learn more about the school of medicine's curriculum and it's focus on the foundations of human anatomy.

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