It's a reasonable enough question. What amazed me was how often people asked it. "What," they would ask, "what is it like to do that to a dead body?"
It took me some time to sort out how I really did feel during those first weeks of anatomy class as I explored--by scalpel, by wrench and by saw--a human body, "my" specimen, "my" cadaver.
Every year the Georgetown University Medical Center invites the family members of those whose bodies have been dissected to a memorial service. It was not until I attended this funeral of sorts that I could answer the "what is it like" question satisfactorily for myself.
There I was, perhaps the only Jew in that Catholic chapel, surrounded by people making the sign of the cross, kneeling, singing hymns. I had come to pay my respects to a courageous woman. A woman who until recently had filled my thoughts almost every waking moment. My cadaver.
I never knew her name. That's always the policy in medical school. I looked around the room, at all the relatives of those who had donated their bodies to Georgetown. Is "my" family here? I wished they were wearing name tags, identifying them as "Table 21" or "92-year-old White Female."
Could the teary-eyed older gentleman in the far corner be her husband? Could the woman in the blue dress be her daughter? Is there really a resemblance there? Maybe the nose? The fair skin? The blue eyes? Could that be her son? If so, then I could say I had known their mother intimately. I knew, for example, that she had undergone a hysterectomy. But that could mean she had left no progeny. So I'd only be guessing.
Medical School, Second Day: My lab partners and I are nervous, busying ourselves with introductions, flipping through fresh notebooks, pretty much avoiding what--or rather, who--is spread out over there, enclosed in a brown bag on the cold steel of Table 21. A sheet of paper taped to the door reads: Table 21. Sex: Female. Age: 92. Cause of Death: Congestive Heart Failure.
As we undrape our subject's upper trunk, we do it earnestly, still infused with the previous day's lecture about conducting ourselves with appreciation and respect for the person on the table.
It is slow going, days and then weeks of minute examination, as we explore the human miracle layer by layer, organ by organ, system by system. And no, it is not troubling, because I know she feels no pain. We only expose the parts we are working on that day. Unexplored areas remain hidden under the plastic. It is hard to think of her as a real person.
And then we reach her hands. My lab partners ask me to hold her hand steady while they carry out the dissection. For the first time, her hand in mine, she seems real to me, like someone who has lived, who has caressed loved ones, who has, quite simply, held hands with others.
Her fingernails still have a remnant of pink polish on them. Hands fine yet strong, well preserved for a 92-year-old. Was she a concert pianist? Probably not, not with those nails. Manual work? No again. Her fingers are too delicate for that.
As the weeks pass, she gives me some truly wondrous moments. My first glimpse of a human heart. The day that I hold her brain gently in my hands, as gently as I held my son the day I gave birth to him. This was where her thoughts resided. Her memories. Her dreams. I am memorizing her anatomy, inch by inch, because that is what the exam will cover, but I am also preoccupied. Who was she? What did she do with her life? Did she feel blessed, or cursed, to live so long?
Somewhere along the line I must have concluded that the answer would be in her face, the last part of the body we would examine. A few times already I have let my hand wander lightly over the plastic that covers her head, trying to read her features with my fingers, learning little. But when the day arrives to uncover her head and neck, I am hesitant. I have been imagining her for so long, but now, as we prepare to push back the plastic, I understand why our teachers saved this moment for last. The face makes the body a person. The face inspires feelings, feelings that would have made the past three months so much more difficult. And I wonder, what if this is a face I don't like--what if it's ugly or mean or dumb?
The plastic comes off, and there she is. Number 21. Our tour guide to the wonders of the body. Her eyes are open, with a straight-ahead stare. I hadn't expected that and it is unnerving. Her expression is pained. That, too, is upsetting. What also strikes me is her coloring. Her skin is fair--I knew that already. But her eyes--they are a light, clear, piercing blue. Just like mine. And my skin is fair. She could be my grandmother. No, she could be me, if I live as long as she did.
Did she fight death? Did she die alone? Or was she surrounded by love? I don't have time to imagine her life. My anatomy exam is a week away and I must go back to understanding her as nerve and muscle and bone.
But I do gain one firm insight into her life. At the end of the course we are told to put her remains into a special box labeled "To Be Returned to the Family." So at least she had someone, people who wanted her back. My lab partners and I feel pleased about that since the remains of most of the other cadavers go into another box for a communal interment.
Perhaps her family was among those praying and singing in the Georgetown chapel. Perhaps not. As I tried to keep up with the hymns, I decided what I would have said had I met them--that their aunt, or mother, or grandmother, or great-grandmother had just begun a new life, deep in that part of my brain that is going to make me a doctor.
When I am finally practicing, when I see a patient, probe for pain, mend a bone, birth a baby--in all of it, it will be that old woman, courageous enough to leave her body to science, who will serve as my internal reference book. My journey with her was so intimate, so illuminating, so elemental that she will always stand as my idea of what human beings are made of.
Ranit Mishori, who lives in Northwest Washington, is in her second year of medical school.