Musings over a Cadaver

(*Names fictitious, not based on real name of cadavers)


The first time I saw Edna* I was almost convinced that she was sleeping. She looked so peaceful, so content, so relaxed. If it weren’t for her exposed thoracic cavity, with her sternum and ribs placed ever so neatly on her stomach, one would probably have tried to wake her and get her a cuppa. But no, she was definitely not in the mood for any form of hot beverage. In fact she was dead, and she was the first dead person I had ever encountered.


Monash University medical students are exposed to the fantastically fascinating (and sometimes confronting) world of anatomy early on in their academic careers; the basics are taught in the first semester, and by second semester we are thrown into complicated lectures, anatomy textbooks, pro-sections, radiology and anatomy tutorials, and cadavers. Never before had I been so stressed, so underprepared for tutorials, and so confused. What is the axilla? How do you learn the brachial plexus? Why are muscles so difficult to learn and memorise? What the hell is that grey blob on the X-ray and why is it important? But this was only exacerbated when I was exposed to the cadavers. Grey, yellow, and pink mush that had stringy bits and hard bits and lumps and bumps; I had no idea what I was looking at, and could not tell the difference between fascia and the radial nerve.


But the most difficult thing to wrap my head around was not what the mush was, but who it was. Without a name to go by and only an incredibly basic medical history  we were exposed to the most intimate and invasive moments of her life (so to speak). Although some of my colleagues disagreed with me, I decided to name her Edna. No reason at all; this may be her real name, it may not be, but it helped me come to terms with the idea that we were working on a human being and helped me maintain respect of the cadaver. For the remainder of the year I began a tradition; I would open up the body bag, get my group to thank her for her sacrifice, and explain the procedure that we would be attempting; from exposing the cubital fossa to revealing the sciatic foramen to removing her heart from her thoracic cavity. I would then conclude the dissection by thanking Edna, squeezing her hand and closing up the body bag for the next group to begin.


This helped tremendously, and I continued this ritual for the cadavers to come; Bernie*, the elderly man with iatrogenic pneumonia, and Maurice*, the man with the incredibly large and cirrhotic liver. This both maintained my sanity and preserved the respect of the cadavers more so than would have occurred without this ritual, and was personally the most helpful thing that I could have done. I appreciate that many other people have their own ways of coping, and I respect that a lot of you will not agree with my methods. But the naming and the personalisation of the people, not tools of learning, in front me helped me cope with one of the most confronting, confusing, difficult, and rewarding experiences of my life.




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