I wonder how far I’ve slid from my past self, because some days past-me feels miles away. In an instant, in the blink of an eye, I feel like I am half the human I once was.
The first day of anatomy, I walked into the lab. Nine metal tables in an orderly square stood before my eyes. And behind the first room, another room with nine orderly tables. And behind the second room, a third. Nine more orderly metal tables. Each with a rectangularly shaped blue bag. I was surprised by how unbothered I was by the smell. I thought the formaldehyde would overwhelm me, but it didn’t. We gathered around our bag. Someone unzipped the bag, and the smell hit me. Harder than when we first walked into the room, but again, not as bad as I imagined. Beneath the blue bag was a layer of thick plastic wrap. Beneath the plastic wrap, a thin sheet drenched in formaldehyde. Beneath the sheet, a towel. Beneath the towel, skin. No, not just skin. A cadaver. A human. A once living, breathing Being that thought and loved and was loved. Lying still. Obviously. The ceremonial “first cut” was nothing more than an incision by the TA or professor. That’s it. That’s a wrap. Except it’s not. It wasn’t. A third of the class was thrown into the throes of anatomy immediately after “first cut.” I was a part of that third.
Lesson 1: how to skin a human being. It’s grotesque and even more so now that I write it out. Scalpel in hand, my partner and I cut along the skin of the back. Our cadaver is face down. Somehow not seeing the head makes it better. The back just looks like skin. I can dissociate my thoughts from my actions. I am just using a scalpel. I am just cutting-I am just cutting-do not think about what I am cutting-I am just cutting. The skin is leathery, quite unlike the soft, supple skin on young living beings. This makes it easier to dissociate. It makes it easier to forget. I want to forget. I want to dissociate. The dissection of the back is involved. We have to dig between muscles and under muscles. My partner and I aren’t the largest people. Quite petite actually. And we must use our full strength, all of our muscles to pull out and detach some muscles. The parallels are too much. Using muscle to pull out muscle. I can’t think about that right now. I erase that thought from my mind. I sing. Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way. It’s four weeks from Christmas. I sing to forget what I am doing. I sing to mask the ripping and tearing noises all around me as muscles are being torn from the backs of once living human beings. At some point in the process, the hand pokes out from underneath the sheet. I silently scream to myself. I vocalize to my partner, “Ahhh, the hand is exposed,” while I quickly cover it with the sheet. The hands. Oh what we do with our hands. We write, touch, paint, cook, hold, and we make music. Oh how strongly I associate my hands with music. With 88 black and white keys. With crescendos and decrescendos. And which I now associate with my beautiful, mahogany external voice box complete with four strings and a bow. Hands remind me of their exquisite ability to express universal feelings in a way that digs into the deep heart’s core. Hands are used to express anger and tension and despair but also love and joy and awe and peace. And feelings that I cannot articulate with words, but are all too plain when spoken through the hands. Music transcends tongues. This is what I associate with hands. And THIS–this is why I silently scream when a hand that looks all too much like a hand pokes out from underneath the sheet drenched in formaldehyde. Looking at the hand, I cannot ignore what I am doing. I cannot ignore to whom I am doing this.
Flash forward several weeks. In the blink of an eye, I have already become desensitized. Scalpel, please. Hemostat, please. Rip, tear, pull, poke, prod, spread. Repeat. In so little time, this has morphed into the norm. My hands no longer ache from holding the tools. I no longer scream when I see the hand. In fact, I pull the arms out, and so that our cadaver is splayed out like a T and the hands are fully exposed. Our cadaver’s hand gets caught inside my lab coat. I don’t scream. I laugh. We have so much to do, so I laugh and continue. I’ve grown so accustomed to this morbid vicissitude. My “normal” would surely be considered a grotesque crime in normal society. But because I have an excuse considered noble and righteous, my monstrous actions are excused for the “greater good.” I excuse myself of my actions. Society excuses me of my actions.
It’s just another day, and I’m feeling brave. I’m so brave that I dare to take the towel off our cadaver’s face just to take a glance. And I freeze. At night, I cannot un-see what I saw. I snap back to reality, but not the anatomy reality. The normal life reality. This cadaver was a human. This cadaver is a human. I wonder.
How far have you fallen, my dear?
How much have I lost of myself within a mere 6 weeks. How much have I changed such that the new norm is to laugh at a dead human’s hand in my lab coat? Where the new norm is to sink into a relaxed state, resting my elbow on our cadaver’s stomach? The cadaver’s head? How much have I changed from when I first started? In the beginning, we meticulously washed our tools at the end of each day to keep things “clean.” And now, we haphazardly throw our tools, which still have bits of human flesh and fat and fascia, into the box and quickly zip the blue bag of our cadaver to get back to our “lives” outside the anatomy lab. I wonder how far I have fallen. I wonder how I have fallen so far. I cannot wonder too much because there is yet work to do. So I continue. Ripping, tearing, pulling, prodding, spreading. I continue to use muscles to pull muscles. But now, the visceral repulsion I had on the first day and lost in the intervening weeks has returned. Yet maybe this is not a bad thing. I feel like I’m climbing a large underground mountain. I’m at the bottom, within the deep, dark pit, and the peak is the only enlightened place that sees the sunlight. The peak is unalloyed empathy, love, compassion, kindness. I think that the visceral repulsion is one step, one very small step, to climbing out of the pit. I do the things I do–the morbid, grotesque things I do–while simultaneously thinking, this cadaver is a human.