The first-year dissection of a cadaver in medical school is much more than a simple lesson in gross anatomy. In her poem “Letter to a 93-year-old Cadaver Who Died from Multiple Causes,” published in the Spring 2014 Intima, I feel Jennifer Stella perfectly presents the learning curve of a medical student working with their first human patient – a body gifted to them to dismantle. The line “I never held your hand ungloved” brought back vivid memories of my own time in the human anatomy laboratory in my first year of medical school, the dull stink of formaldehyde, the pulling on of latex gloves before reaching in, drawing the sheet gently back, and touching the cool skin of the body supine on the table.
Stella conveys how much a body can tell about the medical history of the person who once inhabited it: the “staples close to lost in the louvers of your chest – you had been opened before.” The act of taking a body to pieces, layer by layer, teaches more about physical anatomy than the flat page of a textbook ever can. This poem sings with strange beauty of human anatomy laid bare, the “Triumphant twinned arch,” the “Fleur-de-lis aorta,” the “Scalloped edges of left ventricle fluttered open.”
However, as well as demonstrating how blood is supplied to proximal large intestine, or the origin of the iliopsoas muscle, dissection is also a chance for students to really reflect about the person who made such a generous gift to learning. The “willing body” once belonged to somebody who felt that after death they could help others by donating themselves. Many people who bequest their body for research do so because they have received a lot of medical care, and feel they would like to give something back to science. Others feel that it would just be a shame for a body to go to waste when so much could be learned from it.
On my very first day at medical school there was a ceremony held for the people who had donated their cadavers for us to learn from. A man recounted the words of a family of one of the people: “It’s great. Dad was never clever enough to be a doctor, but now he’s going to be teaching them.” And indeed, they are the most giving of all of our teachers, and we respect their gift so much. Stella’s final stanza perfectly sums up the deep appreciation a medical student should feel for the person who gives everything they were for the purpose of learning: “Did you know how beautiful you were disintegrating.”
Sarah Shirley lives in Hamilton, New Zealand with her husband and two young children. She previously worked as a molecular biologist, and is now in her final year of medical school. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in star*line, takahe Magazine, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, Atlas, Ars Medica, and Pedestal. Her poem "Osteosarcoma" appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The Intima.
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine