The End of the Beginning

Cambodia 449

The top half of our cadaver was removed a few weeks ago. We have spent what seemed an interminable amount of time on the legs. The legs have seemed boring after the face, heart, brain. And yet, more than anything else they carry our burdens…

Finals were gearing up. We were getting panicky. All of us just want to be done so we can get back to the books. Cram. Cram. Cram.

Our last assignment was to bisect the pelvis.

Two teammates held the stiff legs steady, up in the air. Using the hacksaw I worked my way through the colon. Poop smeared across everything, requiring the hose to clear the field.

Last up was the manhood. I had to cut the penis in half lengthwise. Jokes about Lorena Bobbit caught unsaid on the tip of my tongue. 

Is it fitting that the woman in the group gets to do this? 

I laughed quietly. Someone looked up at me, but their eyes held no judgement. We had all gotten used to the odd looks on each other’s faces, the giggles that seemed out of place. No one asks for an explanation. The truth of what we are thinking would be too… uncomfortable.

And then, we were done. Everything was piled into black body bags to be reunited with the other halves and then on to cremation or burial. Waiting families. The bags looked odd… half full, lumpy in all of the wrong places.

Some stop to whisper prayers: Rest in peace, Fred. Safe journey, Lenore. May you find peace, Harry. Thank you.

Many cross themselves, remembering the ghost stories told by our professor, the fellow who dug around in the cadavers and never wore gloves.

We all know we will never be the same again, haunted in one way or another. We are not the men and women who entered this room on the first day all those months before. We have seen horror, been elbow deep in it, and survived. 

We survived.

I survived.

I can do this…

There is a collective moment of silence out of respect for these people, for the knowledge they have shared with us. 

Then we file out.

The lights are turned off.

The doors are locked.

I change back into street clothes and throw away my scrubs in the large gray bin outside the locker rooms. The others I will burn later.

I walked away. 

Or so I thought.

To this day, as I am examining an abdomen, I see an overlay of my cadaver’s insides. Liver here, kidneys there. I can see them. I can feel them. I carry that man and his body with me wherever I go.

And the smell? 

The smell will stay with me forever.


108 thoughts on “The End of the Beginning

  1. Loved this series on gross anatomy. I am pretty sure my body is going to science, and I appreciate that you noted the respect given (by most med students) to all those cadavers who help those students learn.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ahhh, the devious teachers. They knew that would happen. In B-school the big push is to teach using case studies -real cases with the names changed. It is the equivalent of the medical cadaver – what went wrong? who did it, what does it look like inside? We used to pull apart the business and examine every detail.Now every time I go into a place of business I see all the issues layered over what we discovered in B-school. Those teachers are an insidious lot… 😀 Happy Halloween Victo!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes. No one wanted to be there alone or after dark. There were plenty of stories about tanks moving across the room, fog, unexplained sounds, visions. We all took it very seriously and treated the bodies with the utmost respect. Just in case.

      Liked by 3 people

      • When I was at the end of the dental assistant course at my community college before I applied for the dental hygiene program, we interned at the dental school at USC.

        One day they gave us a “tour” of the anatomy lab where the students were doing head and neck dissection. Part of the tour was the room where they kept the cadavers prior to being assigned to students. The bodies were encased in clear plastic bags and stacked kind of bunk bed style on gurneys, for want of a better term, against the walls of the refrigerated room. I remember seeing one, a woman, whose bleached blonde hair I could clearly see through the bag. They looked like dolls, but these had been real people with real lives at one time. I was overcome with this feeling that not only were their bodies present but their spirits too. It was weird and I was very glad when we moved on.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That was kind of nasty. Was there an assignment to go along with this, or just saw and bag? There is a traveling art exhibit now where someone disects corpses and displays them. I planned to go, but it moved on before I got around to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reading your stories about working with the cadaver makes me feel better about my decision to donate my body after death. I only hope I will receive the same respect that your cadaver did once those young people are done with me (BTW, there’s no line on the donation form that says I prefer to have cute young male students working on me – maybe you can bring that to someone’s attention. 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am pleased to know the bodies were treated with respect in your class. I’m wondering if that is the standard. Do people get in big trouble if they are disrespectful? My driver’s license says I’m an organ donor, and I’m happy about that, but donating my whole body…. I don’t know. This series has led me to inch toward considering it. That’s why I’m asking these questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The standard would be respect. Always respect. I think students understand the serious nature and appreciate the fact that doing this is an honor and a privilege. I have no doubt that if there had been any shenanigans the punishment from the profs would have been swift and terrible. It is impressed upon everyone from the start that taking any tissue home for personal purposes is a criminal offense and will get you kicked out of school. Not that it ever crossed anyone’s mind. It is a huge gift, having a body to learn from.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, we are all grateful that you and all our other wonderful doctors survived your training to use it for such good. Although we should always be respectful and honor the cadaver we still need to realize that birth and life and death are just that. If we are lucky the worms will eat us and we will replenish the earth. I would love all my remains to be used for good – research, the body farm or organ donation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There some scents I will detest more and more as I live on. Human waste, faeces, rotting and decay tend to trigger a message that says “get away!”.

    At the same time we joke about these things to calm our minds and rationalise our emotional reactions to control ourselves from doing stupid things. You really make me think. Few people make me think…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. When my husband was in dental school, he and a partner had a cadaver that was an obese male, maybe 250 pounds. Just getting through all the fat was a real challenge. They envied the team next to them who had a little old lady who weighed maybe 100 pounds, if that. Yes, he still talks about the formaldehyde smell that got into everything, and that was fifty years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I just asked him about it and he said they dissected everything from the perineum on up. (He said the legs were similar in structure to the arms, so they didn’t have to do those.) He went to UCSF and there was no air conditioning in the anatomy lab, just open windows. Being SF, the cold foggy air coming helped, sort of. He said the smell was mainly phenol, which they had to keep injecting into the cadavers to keep them from becoming moldy. This was in 1961–he graduated in 1965.

        He said the anatomy practical exams were set up by anatomy PhD. students and they would do tricky things like reverse the organs in the abdomen or just generally mess things up in the cadaver to throw them off. I don’t know if dental students now have to do that much dissection. When I was touring the USC dental school anatomy lab, they were just working on the head and neck. Although, they did have the torso of a young woman who had killed herself because she was three months pregnant and couldn’t face her family. I thought that was very sad. That was in 1976, after Roe v. Wade even. I think of her when I see people who are smug about turning women away from having an abortion. Do they have any idea what those women might have to deal with in their families? Sorry. Rant over. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Amen to your rant! I find it fascinating that he had to do so much dissection. The dental students around here don’t do that much nowadays. Dentists educated back then were a completely different class. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • My husband just told me the cadaver he was assigned weighed over 300 pounds. It was never used in the practical exams because there was too much fat to maneuver around. My husband and his partner worked on it for an entire year. He still remembers the name on the toe tag. Someone that obese was unusual back in the 1960’s. Today? Not so much, unfortunately.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Ohio, where I am licensed, is the only state that licenses its massage therapists through a state medical board. I have a limited medical license. The school I attended was fortunate in that we had connections with Wright State’s anatomy lab. We were required to participate in cadaver dissection. We concentrated on the muscles and ligaments. Our cadavers had their faces draped. I think that’s the only way I could get through it. I cringed when you mentioned seeing the face. You dug around a lot more than we did. We also had to participate in the embalmed cadaver, where the muscles look like roast beef and so it isn’t quite so…human. We had the opportunity for untreated cadavers but it was optional. I passed. I’m glad I did. I’m glad I had the opportunity I had but… yes. I can somewhat imagine (and somewhat can’t) the impact it would have on the med students and on your lives afterwards. And yes, despite ginormous hooded fans…the smell.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely, without a doubt, yes. You can visualize a lot from drawings. We had hard plastic 3D models. I invested in 3D interactive anatomy software. All of them were useful. The cadaver study wouldn’t have been as meaningful without that background. But REALLY being able to see the size and shape and relativity of the muscles, how they really attached and what that looked and felt like…priceless.

        That said, I think for the vast majority of people, even those going into a medical profession, the anatomy 101 dissections of cats is NOT worth the trauma and I could write a whole lot about that portion of things.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Yep. Pathology was painful. My feet hurt from all that standing, the smell was unpleasant, and I am clumsy- I was always petrified that I will cut the wrong way. but what was worse was the learning for the exam, in the comfort of my non smelly home. I think it was one of the hardest exams. ALl those facts! Brrrr. In my case, it was a long time ago. And now I am retired, having so much fun I forgot to blog or read my favourite blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. wow this is a really interesting series and since I’m catching up on blogs, I read this post first.

    There’s an album by John Zorn called Elegy and one of the event’s that’s talked about around that album is that he observed an autopsy at a medical school to maintain the grim mood he was going for when composing this record.

    It’s an interesting album for sure, clocking in at around 29 minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. When our anatomy course is over, the class holds a Memorial Service for the donors of their bodies and their families. We get a large turnout, and the class runs the service: a capella groups, solos, instrumental groups, dancing. poetry reading, prose reading – whatever talents the class has is on display. The families love the service and it has helped boost donations to our program.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, wow. That would feel awkward, for me, to meet the families. I wouldn’t mind writing a note of thanks, but if my spouse had donated their body, I am pretty certain I would not want to meet the people who were mucking around in his innards. But that is just me. 😉


  13. A well-told story. I’m sure you guys never can be the same after that.
    And the smell?
    Hah! Made me recall my one and only dissection in senior high. A rabbit. Poor thing.
    We did a fairly good job at dissecting I guess, but that was not the problem. The problem was the smell. I washed and washed and washed my hands (after throwing the gloves away). All the perfumes of Arabia!
    But the smell stuck to me for days. And now, with your story, it came back to my nostrils…
    (Wide-eyed emoticon)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. My grandmother donated her body to science many years ago, in the 70s. It always made my dad sad, and he finally tracked down the site of her burial. In those days, they didn’t share with the families. My cousin went on to medical school and gross anatomy, but stalled at the live frog dissection in Intro Bio. That was too real for me. I quite like fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I would, and actually did! During med school, I got a job dissecting cadavers for a local community college. The second time around when I knew better what I was looking for was so much more solidifying. As for it being crucial, I think it definitely helped me with physical exam and imaging skills and I feel like it was a great starting ground for me going through all the subsequent blocks of med school.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi-Hi, Victo,
    My, what a post to start at after my long absence–and I note that there are not the usual hundred comments after it. Apparently the subject matter was too intense for many, yes?

    Watching Johnathan Miller’s “The Body Human” so long ago helps me to understand a small portion of what you may have felt–a tiny, tiny portion, for the actual cutting–! and then the smell, which is so overwhelming when it’s just an animal’s corpse–the way it clings to your skin and clothes and inside your nostrils–and then to have it be a person who used to be alive? One must have to separate the mind, and shelve one part of it. If you’re a good doctor, you unshelve that part again when you practice and have the patient in front of you.

    I see I began in the middle of a story with this post, but that will have to stay. I’ve been almost entirely off WP since–JULY!! Hadn’t known these…issues of mine had lasted so long. So I am trying to back-read everyone’s posts from Halloween forward, and even that is proving difficult. I shall not hurry, but get there in time, so that I don’t feel overwhelmed by a runaway train. : )

    Liked by 1 person

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