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Death and Awe.

August 26, 2019

A couple of years ago, I went to a cadaver lab. This is exactly what it sounds like: A person who has donated their body to science is, well, laid open for you to see. I was nervous beforehand, as you might imagine.

It was the most powerful learning experience I've ever had.

 

I wrote this a few days later, after I'd had a chance to process it, and I share it with you now:

 

 

Before she died, she painted her nails. She must not have seen it coming.

 

We didn’t know much more about her. The cheerful, gregarious med student leading us on the tour around her body said she came to them with very little information. But her hands and feet were covered because of her painted nails. “It starts to make you wonder about her,” he said. “Did she paint them herself? Did someone else do them for her?” In other words: She becomes more than a body. Was she vain? Were her painted nails a special treat? How quickly did her end come? It made her feel like more of a flesh-and-blood person.

There she was in front of us, flesh and no blood, like a wax figure. It took time for my cohort to be brave enough to volunteer to take an organ out of her. “It’s really OK,” the med student said. “She wanted you to learn from her.” This was the first time tears came to my eyes.

 

We held and touched

heart
lungs
liver
stomach (so tiny)
pancreas
spleen

kidneys
intestines
arm (yes, a whole arm)
vertebra
hip joint
leg
 

I held her uterus. It fit in the palm of my hand. The med student said they had no information about whether she had children, but they surmise from the size of her cervix that she did. Her children grew and were made in that little lump in the palm of my hand, I thought, and I fought back tears for the second time.

 

The third time was when it was time to hold her brain. Everything she thought, everything she knew, everything she remembered, everything she felt, happened in an organ the size of my fists put end to end.

I touched her cerebrum. I touched the place where she processed her sensory information. I touched the part that governed how fast her heart and lungs operated. In my hands, I held the entire sum of a dead woman.

And so it is with you, and so it is with me:

We can be summed up so simply. It all seems so complex and really, it is all so simple. Why do we worry so much, when it is so simple?

 

It was time to go. I struggled to put my gratitude into words to the student who had so happily led us on this path. And then, I stood by her, flesh and no blood, feeling protective of her, feeling the pointlessness of saying anything to her. So I said a silent prayer and told her, “Thank you for your beautiful gift.” She wanted us to learn from her. May we all leave such beautiful gifts in the end.

 

 

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