Bodies of knowledge: Ceremony honors cadavers

To most, death means wearing black, going to a funeral, tears, obituaries and the abstraction of grief and loss. But to medical students, dead bodies are a centerpiece of their education, and the knowledge they gain from these donated bodies are crucial to their future effectiveness as doctors. A ceremony will be held on May 9 at the Levis Faculty Center at 5 p.m. to allow students to honor the anatomy cadavers and reflect on their first year in medical school.

There’s nothing that can prepare someone for the first day of anatomy lab.

“Even before you see it, you smell it. We have ten or twelve bodies, and the scent of the formaldehyde is strong,” said Brendan Daley, a first-year medical student at the University.

Formaldehyde is a chemical used in the embalming process, and while it is unpleasant, the real challenge to new students lies beneath the dark body bags distributed around the room.

“It’s surreal, and on one level you know that ‘this is it,’ there’s no turning back,” said Daley. “You’re in the presence of this body, and you can either be too afraid to approach it or finally realize that this is part of a good process in the long run.”

The upper extremities are the first things to be dissected. Grouped around the bodies in the anatomy lab, students cut into the shoulder, the upper and lower arm, and the hand. The faces of the cadavers are covered, said Daley, because the sight of a cadaver’s face can be emotionally staggering.

These kinds of measures are used in order to build an emotional distance between the cadavers and the students, and while this distance is needed for students to concentrate on their work, Daley said that students are fully cognizant of the tremendous gift that these bodies represent.

“We think we know what being naked is, on the outside; but this is being naked on the outside and inside,” said Daley. “To see things that even their intimate connections never got to see.”

What students like Daley get the opportunity to see is so much more than textbook illustrations. The very act of touching the different organs and understanding where they sit three-dimensionally is both irreplaceable and essential to any doctor, regardless of the area of medicine.

Robert Lurvey, a fourth year medical student at the University, said that even with the use of laparoscopic surgery, which is performed with extremely small incisions and the use of cameras, the skills gained in anatomy lab are vital.

“You’re trying to orient yourself in that two-dimensional space with a camera,” said Lurvey. “When you’re trying to do surgery on a screen, it is really impossible unless you’ve seen where the kidney really sits relative to everything else, or where the small intestine sits or where the appendix sits.”

This spacial awareness cannot be reproduced using computer simulations or textbooks, and while they are useful, Daley said that their color-coded simplicity is misleading and can’t prepare a doctor for the variation found inside a real body.

“If you try to learn it from the book and never go into the lab you’ll be completely clueless,” said Daley. “If you become a surgeon you’re not going to be operating on a textbook, you’re not going to be trying to dissect a page out of a book.”

Personal exposure to real bodies breeds more than just detailed knowledge of structure. There is also a certain amount of wonder.

“It’s pretty remarkable that all of us are so similar. The bodies are so complex, how can that be replicated?” said Daley. “How can all of us share all of this in common so that medicine can even happen?”

Martha Sweeney, who has been an anatomy lab instructor and lecturer for 20 years at the University, said that the ceremony gives the students an opportunity to express their gratitude to the families of those whose bodies were donated.

“It’s a closure for their course and for them,” said Sweeney. “It’s for (the family’s) comfort too that their family member was treated properly and that the students truly benefited from it.”

For students like Daley and Lurvey, the ceremony can mean many things, and in some respects the event serves as broad catharsis for the emotional and academic stress of the first year of medical school.

However, there is also the deeply-felt connection between the students and the bodies, and the ceremony allows them to express gratitude, even if the object of that gratitude cannot accept it.

“Sometimes ‘thank you’ is all you can say,” said Daley.

But in some sense, the gratitude of students like Daley is a transformational one; the intimacy that resulted from his time spent in the anatomy lab went far beyond expertise in the mechanics of the body, and that even in death the body can help save future lives by educating future doctors.

“That’s what this ceremony is really about; the notion that we can realize that the people we interact with, both as physicians and as people, are much more than skin and bones,” said Daley. “Everyone has benefited from (the bodies), not just us.”