Just Another Day at the Office: Part 2


It seemed dichotomous that a profession so consumed with the preservation of
life would start out immersed in death, but that is the way it has always been.

Last week we began our time together discussing what it was like to cut a woman’s head in half with a hand saw. If that strikes you as viscerally shocking you might want to back up and catch that column first. This one will just seem creepy and confusing otherwise. Go ahead, I’ll be here when you get back.

Not everybody can say they’ve sawed someone’s head in half. In fact, under the wrong circumstances such a revelation tossed about nonchalantly might earn you unwanted attention from law enforcement. In my case, it was just a necessary hurdle in my grueling race to become a physician.

Per our discussion last week, my cadaver’s name was Berniece. To look upon her was to imagine what if. She was shaved head to foot and had been drained of her bodily fluids via a generous incision in her neck. Whoever had sewn this wound back together was not destined for a lucrative career in plastic surgery, but it was serviceable enough.

She was stiff and cold as they all were, but she could still help us out in a thousand little ways. Until the day came for us to meticulously disassemble them, we frequently used her hands to help support our dissection guide and “Netter’s Atlas to Human Anatomy”. In quiet moments I imagined where those hands had been.

Berniece looked to be in her early seventies, so balance of probability those hands had been lots of places. They had likely worked hard, wiped noses, spanked bottoms, and hefted grandchildren. They had probably created, crafted, castigated, and killed. It was a sobering thing to ponder.

Gross Anatomy was an undeniably surreal experience.


It’s amazing how much unnatural stuff is inside of people these days. By the time the course was complete we had harvested defibrillators, artificial joints, an Inferior Vena Cava filter, and the occasional errant heart valve. Every one was a diagnosis, a difficult discussion with a physician, frightening anesthesia, an anxious time for family, and an arduous recovery. However, each of these tiny little items had bought their recipient a bit more life.

That was the point, after all. Life, and as much as humanly possible. I later came to appreciate that the preservation of life wasn’t always the ultimate goal, and that was okay. There is, at times, a broad gulf between life and quality of life. Cultivating the capacity to differentiate between the two as a physician is just as important as learning how many vertebrae there are in the thoracic spine (twelve) or the many miraculous metabolic manifestations of the human liver (more than I could reliably keep track of).

What’s in the Vat?

At each stage in the process the lab assistant would roll in a spare vat filled with exceptional examples harvested from previous classes. When we were doing hands, he brought in a vat full of hands. Likewise feet, pelvises, shoulders, etc. On the day we began the head and neck the guy strolled in behind in a fresh vat.

I pulled him aside and softly queried, “Dude, tell me that’s not a vat full of heads.”

He nodded in the affirmative and walked off. His was a weird job. He was a weird guy.

I’d sooner not have all this fuss done over me when I’m gone.
I have it on reliable information that I won’t care when the time comes.


By the time we were finished, Berniece wasn’t much to look upon. She had given up her secrets freely, but we still had to work for them. What remained was gathered up and buried with a dignity that was well-deserved.

At the end of the course there is a memorial service. Family members of those who have donated their bodies frequently attend, as do all the med students. It is a somber time. Passionate words are spoken.

Donating your body to science is a bit of a trope in modern parlance. The implication is that a person is so exceptional, impressive, or weird that somebody would be interested in taking them apart just to find out why. That’s not really accurate. All physicians have to learn this stuff, and your cadaver becomes a superb teacher.

I would consider it myself. To steal unabashedly from Hamlet, once I have shuffled off this mortal coil I’ll have no further need of this peculiar vehicle that has so ably facilitated my adventures thus far. If some enthusiastic kids can get some mileage out of it then all the better. I’ll be with Jesus and will no longer be troubled myself.

After conjuring these long-suppressed memories I now find myself wistful and introspective. They say your cadaver in Gross Anatomy is your first patient. That is indeed true. Berniece taught me so much. For that I will be sincerely, nay eternally grateful.

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