I have been sitting on this blog post for some time now. My thoughts and feelings are so confused I am not sure I can put them into words. You know when they say there are some things you can only understand when you experience it yourself? This is one of those things.
Long before the meeting, I started to prepare myself for it. I watched TV programs to get an idea of what I might see. I searched for information from the internet. I read books to find out more. I rehearsed what I imagine would happen in my mind. Yet nothing, nothing could have prepared me for this.
My last class meeting for the summer of 2010 took place in Harvard Medical School. The meeting was with cadavers. Apart from the excitement of gaining access to such a famous school, I was also at the same time a little anxious. My previous experiences with dead bodies were mainly of friends and relatives ensconced within the safe confines of their coffin, behind a piece of glass. And most recently and painfully, having to claim the body of my good friend from the autopsy room at the forensic mortuary. She didn’t even look like herself. They had wrapped her up in something that looked like a white trash bag, and I remember feeling awful that her body was being associated with trash.
So I walked into the cadaver lab with a lot of conflicting emotions within. 5 dissected cadavers were lying in black zipper bags on steel tables. The walls were decorated with the tools of the trade – saws and hammers and knives of varying sizes. Huge operating theater lights hovered overhead each cadaver.
They had heads, the front halves of their heads at least. They also had faces, fully intact faces. Some had their arm muscles exposed. Some had their chest cavity opened. Some had the top of their skull sawed off. But they all had faces. And I happened to be assigned a couple of facial muscles to identify. It was a very surreal experience touching a dead stranger’s face, trying to locate which muscle lies where, and to do a show-and-tell to my classmates. After that though, once you face the face, it becomes very easy to interact with dead strangers’ body parts. So I held a man’s lung and heart, fiddled with someone’s ribcage and diaphragm, fingered cricoids and thyroids and hyoids, and poked around a woman’s tympanic membrane.
I have turned vegetarian since. To preserve some shred of sanity. Too many people I know have been dying around me lately. And now, I have to deal with the guilt of desecrating the bodies of too many people I don’t know.
I wish I had reached out and touched her face then.