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Monday, January 23, 2006

How do I deal with it? (I)

I've been asked many times before how I cope with my work - having to witness death and sadness as part of my daily routine.

I don't know if this is the same with all doctors, but certainly for me, part of my medical training involved desensitisation.

On my first day at medical school, we were brought to our anatomy department and shown a fresh cadaver. A dead man lying on a metal table. He exuded a faint smell of formalin. His skin was pale and waxen. There were fifty of us and we crowded around him, each of us looking at the other, wondering who would be the first to faint. We put on our gloves and laid out hands on his still intact body.

He felt cold, and his flesh was hard. I pressed down on his skin and left a small indentation. It was like touching a slab of plasticine that had been left out overnight. I looked at him and wondered how he died, what kind of life he had led, why he had donated his body to medical science.

There were other cadavers in the room, and we worked in shifts during our anatomy day, so that there were only 3 or 4 of us to a body at any given time.

Every week, the smell of formalin grew stronger and the cadavers grew more shrivelled and dried. Our cadavers were stripped of skin first, then muscle. Then we opened them up to learn of the secrets of the body from within. There were blackened lungs from a lifetime of smoking, swollen livers from the excesses of pub life, thickened heart valves from the ravages of time.

Then one afternoon, my friends and I decided to do some last minute revision in the anatomy hall. I picked a table at random, and then pulled off the green protective sheet that lay over the cadaver. What I saw made me jump backwards in shock, bile rising up my throat.

Leaning forward, my friends gasped in surprise and stared at the body.

"It's still got it's skin on."

We looked at each other in silence. And in shame. Because "It" was, in actuality, "She".

And we realised that, in the space of one year, we had already lost something that we could never get back.

In one year, I had stopped recognising cadavers as dead people. I had already forgotten.

4 Comments:

Blogger jadeite said...

Ouch.

So why were you shocked? Because the cadaver was female? Or cuz the skin was still on?

I can't be a doctor.

I can't really deal with dead bodies.

5:12 pm  
Blogger tscd said...

jadeite: With the skin still on, we recognised it as a human.

6:15 pm  
Blogger ampulets said...

There's this Japanese film (I forget the title...but it's by the same director who made the Tetsuo films) I saw a year ago about a medical student who falls into a coma after an accident, and wakes up with amnesia. He then goes back to start afresh at medical school - the film centres around this rather warped situation where the cadavar his group in class was assigned to to dissect was actually his girlfriend (fellow med student) who had died...and how the who process of dissection of her body becomes his process of recollection.

5:56 pm  
Blogger tscd said...

ampulets: Man, that is seriously messed up. That is the substance of nightmares. I don't see how any medical student could dissect somebody that they knew.

2:11 am  

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