To the Cadaver at Anatomy Table Twelve

Yevin Roh, School of Medicine, Class of 2018

Third Prize Winner 2015 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award

The number one rule at anatomy table twelve is:
        Respect the Cadaver
Because on the day we met, our professor told my entire class of MS1s to respect the cadavers,
        To respect you,
        But she never told me how
Doing so with patients who are alive is easy–
        wash your hands, introduce yourself, don’t pass judgment…
        Basic things I should know–
        things the admissions committee believed I could do.

But there is never enough surface area at the lab bench when insides start becoming outsides
        Tops of skulls being turned into dishes
                holding scraps of skin and fat in the effort to expose more muscle
        Rib cages reflected to create large, gently curved plates
                creating a makeshift tray for tools
Still, I am
        uncertain if this was disrespect,
        but certain this was not respect.

Each time I slid on a pair of nitrile gloves,
        I wasn’t sure how I was going,
        to respect you
So I treated you as if you were alive.

I gave you a smile when we first made eye contact–
Despite the clouded eyes and the plastic bag covering your head–
        As if you could still see me.

When my lab partners took the shears to your ribs to reveal your heart,
I abducted your arm and patted your hand as if I could soothe your pain–
        as if you still had any concept of pain.

And when I slid our scalpel too suddenly through your skin,
        I said, “Sorry!”
        seeing that I had sliced your small saphenous vein,
        as if you could still hear me.

I keep forgetting that you are…
        not alive….
                (To say “dead” doesn’t seem quite right, regardless of its medical accuracy)
The starkest reminder is not your eviscerated body,
        nor the black plastic bags filled with your organs,
                but the pink polish on your nails.

Your body has been cold for two years,
but the polish still shines,
its flecks of glitter still sparkle
        Like you’ve reapplied it when the lab lights go out.

But I catch myself,
the polish still looks fresh because
        your nails stopped growing,
Stopped growing two years ago when your overloaded heart failed to beat.

How could I forget?
In my efforts to respect you,
        I had forgotten that you were…
                Resting in peace…
I only felt privileged to have such a compliant patient
        One who would forgive my many mistakes and trust in my mere bachelor’s degree.

Perhaps I grew too close,
        in striving to respect you,
        I created a caricature of who you might be.

Our lab manual said to feel the space between the heart and pericardium,
        to “appreciate” it
It never said how, so I slipped my hands around your heart, a still drum
                If I would feel bootprints of past lovers
                If I would feel bits of warmth planted by the kind words of a stranger.

I pulled on the tendons of your forearm, watched the fingers curl
I deviated from the lab manual again as I began
                How many hands had you held?
                Did you prefer to shake hands firmly or hug closely?

When I cut your cranial nerves,
I peaked at them,
        hoping to see memories leaking from their severed ends.
My eyes tried to distill the drops of clear fluid into stories
Maybe they could filter the fluid,
        and I’d be able to observe in the drops from CN II
                the last images you had seen
                catching glimpses of your life flashing before your eyes,
Maybe your final thoughts had coagulated in your brain,
and I needed only to pierce the pia mater to see them ooze out.

I hoped memories were still stuck in your neurons for me to explore,
but there was only the steady drip of embalming and cerebrospinal fluid,
        steady like clockwork,
                counting down the moments till I too,
                would need to decide if I would donate my body to science.

Alas, you kept your stories to yourself.

Your winged scapula was a mystery,
        To which our professor tried to explain by asking,
        “Did she have a mastectomy?”
“Not until a few months ago, when we dissected her breasts in lab 1”
        I wanted to say,
        But I stayed as silent as you,
        And wondered if I too, would become forgetful of my patients.

I cannot forget you
The black ink of permanent marker on your patient history
        Could not drown out your name
                it could barely make you anonymous
        and I would call you by it,

But it feels…
                to say your name
Without ever being formally introduced to
Without even sharing a handshake and a smile.

It feels…
                to respect you clumsily,
                Grasping at fibers of courtesy, to weave some form of deference
                hoping it matches the color of your character
ever knowing
And how
wanted to be