I was one of those people. On the first day of dissection, I inadvertently fainted, falling back rather unromantically into the arms of the person behind me. It was strange as I’d had a preconceived notion to how the process was going to be. I thought there would be a body, perhaps vaguely resembling a human being in front of me. We would then get busy to work learning the intricacies of human anatomy and dissecting various systems of her body. I expected this on the first day. There was also the fact that ever since doing work experience in the field, I was determined to become a surgeon. So fainting in that sense, felt like a failure, albeit a humorous one. Looking back on the moment, I remember our group unzipping the off white plastic body bag, the smell of formaldehyde (one that was completely new to me) and feeling a form of nervous excitement. It was still excitement though. However when the body was completely out of the bag and lain on the cold metallic table, I couldn’t help but feel unsteady. It was the face. Looking at the face, I realised that this was a person in front of me. A person who had once been a child, sister, mother, daughter, who had once had a job, friends and family. A person who had experienced joy, sadness, grief, anger, jealously and countless other emotions. I imagined a family or friend in that same position and simultaneously felt the blood rush out of my brain. The rest was a blur, but I tried to engage in that first week as best as I could.
Oddly enough, in the following weeks, it just seemed so routine. I had absolutely no difficulty cutting and exploring this person in front of me. Something had changed. Looking back, I feel as I suppressed the idea that this was a person. It may seem daft, but at least it helped me. Another reason is the sheer volume of anatomy we had to learn. The human body started to seem less and less mysterious and more and more like a compendium of names for various parts. It was like a piece of machinery but with complexity beyond that of any machine made by man. One that humans were nowhere close to fully understanding. Someone told me that on average, medical students learn a total of 7000 new words by the end of the first year. I assume that number only climbs as we progress. The vast amount of knowledge in a way helped process my misconceptions about the body. I for one, expected everything to be neatly arranged much like in a textbook. In reality it was a mess of fat and fascia, with loops looped around other loops, blood vessels and nerves navigating through muscle and bone. It felt like an incredibly large and precariously packed suitcase. It is of course a three dimensional concept rather than a two dimensional one. I absolutely loved the entire process and threw myself into trying to learn anatomy. Fortunately what seemed like a mystery at the start, now seems slightly more manageable.
Nonetheless, the time sped by and as I come to the end of the process this week, having spent a total of a year learning about the body, I can’t help but feel grateful. Grateful for the opportunity and especially grateful to our cadaver. As the amount of anatomy has dwindled, I’ve started to think of our cadaver as more than piece of machinery, but instead as a human being again. However now I feel a sense of pride and deep respect. It takes a special kind of human being to donate their body to medical education. One that would want her body to be put to a good use by others after she had no use for it herself. Although I know almost nothing about her as a person, I know for a fact that the virtues of courage and stoutheartedness were not lacking. In the end, all I can say is thank you.