Joe

by Tara Slivinski, SOM ’11

Honorable Mention 2008 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award

I felt nauseous.

The smell of formaldehyde filled my nostrils and permeated my hair and clothing like a strong perfume. Over the next several months, I would get used to this smell on my clothing and hands, would taste it on my sandwich during lunch. We stood there, a group of ten medical students, surrounded by cadavers. The professor introduced us to the laboratory and made small jokes to take the tension away from what was about to happen. We had heard that we should feel “privileged because not many people can cut human bodies without getting arrested.” But, as I was about to find out, it was more than a privilege. It was a silent trust between those that dedicated their lives and us, as students, learning all we could from this frozen form of life.

We started on the back. Professors rationalized dissecting the back first because it is a large space and one of the least emotional parts of the body. I did not agree. When we first opened the white body bag, I noticed them- freckles and moles everywhere. This back reminded me of my grandfather’s back. I can picture it, skin soaked in the sun while performing outside chores or being embraced by hands like my own. I wondered how many hands had embraced this back, in a hug, in sadness, in joy. Then my mind wandered. Were any of these moles cancerous? They certainly did not cause his death, but perhaps they were small signs of his mortality. I found myself having to transition my mind often, away from the human element of this body towards a preserved specimen for learning. It was the only way to stay sane.

I started with the first cut. I know it is cliché, but the scalpel cut through the first layer of skin like butter. That was easy. Then I started on the separation of skin from the vertebrae and muscles of the back. It was like pulling apart glued paper as I tried to quickly separate what took years to fully form together. Then it happened again. I saw the muscles and could not help but wonder- did he work out? Did he have a career of strenuous work, trying to provide for a family that still mourns him today? Instead of learning the spatial relationship of the muscles, I thought of the life of this man, whom I later named “Joe.”

As my dissection team continued the dissection to other areas of the body, we could not help but yell out in excitement: “Look at these tumors on his lungs… cool!” After making these quick statements, I would then reflect. These tumors killed this man. These small lumps, that we found interesting, caused pain and ultimately death. Joe had laid in his bed, only trying to imagine these little perturbations, and here I was actually looking at them, feeling the granulations, seeing a freeze frame of his death. Why did you have to smoke, Joe? I again thought of my grandfather and his current emphysema from years of smoking. I wondered if he has similar looking lungs and if one day I will be the one more concerned with emotion than learning.

We continually tried to make small talk during the dissections. We talked about relationships, other classes, and laughed often, ignoring the fact that our hands were deep within the abdomen or removing fat from the popliteal region. Later during the course, an older woman talked to the class about respecting the body and preparing ourselves for the unveiling of the face. I tried to get emotional, but it was too late. I had already seen pieces of evidence of this man’s humanity all over his body- discolored markings, chest hair, flaking skin. As we unveiled the head wraps, several students bowed their heads in respect, while several others started crying uncontrollably. I felt badly for not feeling emotional. I thought they all looked the same. The heads were shaven and you could barely distinguish male from female. I still cannot clearly remember Joe’s face, but could describe his back and his other small features- that is what I will always remember.