By Hannah Simon
In a practiced gesture, I remove the towel from each part of our body. First the legs, then the chest, finally, and without hesitation, the face. At this point, I pause and really examine him. Yellow-jaundiced skin. Pearly, half-open eyes staring vacantly up at the ceiling. Mouth ajar to reveal gold fillings in his back molars. Weeks ago, we had decided to call him Abraham. A sturdy, stoic name. A name fitting for an elderly body with barely any adipose tissue and long, tapering bones.
We don’t really talk much about Abraham. After this past whirlwind month of Anatomy Class, we all have been more concerned with differentiating between the nerves in the hand than contemplating how Abraham died, or more importantly, how he lived. None of us question what would compel someone to donate their body to our unsteady, fumbling medical student hands, or what the final days of his life were like. We haven’t considered what his profession was, whether he had a family, a wife, whether anyone is thinking of him right now. Thinking of him not as we do- but rather, as a living, breathing, un-dissected person.
By week four, we’ve taken apart the superficial back, dissected through the brachial plexus in the chest, torn through the shoulder and hand.
By week five, we’ve cut up the superficial muscles of the face.
By week six, we’ve bisected his head in half, like a coconut. As I hack away at the fascia surrounding his eyes, I realize he doesn’t even look like a human anymore.
The only identifying mark on Abraham is a tag that hangs off his big toe with the number “24” written hastily in marker. When we leave at the end of lab, futilely scrubbing our bodies to relinquish the smell of phenol and decay, he lies covered next to cadaver #25- a slightly overweight woman- cause of death liver failure, and cadaver #23- a 50-year old man- cause of death lung cancer. We know that Abraham died of “general debility.” We know that he was 92. But beyond this, we know nothing of Abraham. We don’t even know when he died. Perhaps- at this very moment- his wife is lying in the bed they shared for sixty years, restless with loneliness in a bed made for two. Perhaps his granddaughter just gave birth to his great grandson, fists balled tightly like sea snails. Perhaps his son is suffering a deep depression, remembering his father and regretting that he never really had the chance to tell him sorry from that last fight. Maybe Abraham did great things, ran a company, inspired lives. Or maybe he struggled with alcoholism and homelessness his whole life, cheated, lied and stole. Maybe no one misses him at all. Because really, what difference does it make now how he led his life? Because now he is bones and cartilage and nerves and vasculature, no different from Cadaver #23 and Cadaver #25. He is another cadaver amongst a sea of lifeless flesh.
One day, I tell myself, I’ll say a prayer for Abraham. I’ll celebrate the life he lived, and give thanks sacrifice he made for us. Maybe I’ll write a note to his family, and tell them that he has helped medical students that will one day save lives just like his.
One day, I say, I’ll do this.
But not today, of course.
Because today I need to learn the difference between the flexor carpi ulnaris and the flexor carpi radialis. I have an anatomy exam in one week, a clinic visit tonight, I’m behind 6 lectures, and the test-induced anxiety is beginning to set in like storm clouds. Last night I had a dream that I was cutting up human bodies. Carefully, meticulously, hacking away and sealing their limbs in plastic bags. Serial killer or medical student, have I forgotten the difference?
Before I leave, I recite the nerves of the body, the muscles of the hand. Almost like a prayer for Abraham, as I cover his face, tuck in his arms, seal up his body tightly.