In a conversation I was having with B’s 9 year old cousin a few weeks ago, cadavers came up. I have no idea how that happened and I regretted it immediately. If presented with the opportunity I suggest you avoid describing how medical students learn from cadavers to anyone below the age of 10. She insisted there was something wrong about taking apart bodies, and I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t wrong, and actually wasn’t something she should be scared of… because it was scientific, and we respected them, and were grateful to the people who offered their bodies to us. And we were using them only with the best intentions, and to become better doctors. And so on.
Throughout my first year of medical school if there was one thing that everybody wanted to know about, it was the cadaver. And it’s probably because if it doesn’t sound wrong, it certainly sounds gross. The fact that medical students are granted permission to study from and slice up a dead body– a real human being– is gruesome. But it’s also essential, and (I know it sounds cheesy, but) remarkably beautiful.
I will readily talk about it with anyone that asks (except, from now on, with 9 year olds), as it was hands down one of the coolest experiences I have ever had. An entire semester with my little old lady. Every time I picture the structure of someone’s insides, it’s her insides that I see. And if I could, I would thank her for that.
Because of her, I have held a human brain in the palm of my hands. I have held a heart in my hands. I have felt the thickness and texture of the muscle of the heart, I have cut into its chambers and peeled back its valves. I have stuck my finger in and felt the walls of the ascending aorta. I have seen how a uterus attaches to its fallopian tubes. I have picked up an ovary with my fingers. I have peeled back layers of skin, fascia, muscle, fat, and more fascia to uncover bone. I have learned to appreciate the relationship between arteries, veins, and the lymphatic system (trust me, it’s cooler than it sounds). I have followed nerves from the finger through the elbow past the armpit and into the spinal cord. I have seen it all. I have touched it all. It’s so cool.
As for B’s adorable cousin, I’m fairly certain that because of our little talk she’ll be having nightmares for years to come. And when I get disinvited to next years Canadian Thanksgiving I’ll know who to blame.