A Reflection on the Anatomy Lab

Originally delivered March 1, 2007 at the Anatomy Lab Memorial Service.

In preparing for this reflection, there were many sensations that came to mind: the dryness of dread in my mouth on that first day of lab, the sharp snap of latex gloves, the lingering smell of disinfectant on my hands, the gritty knot in my stomach unraveling after my first day of dissection. I remembered the overwhelming and unnamed emotions associated with those days in lab: the wonder and revulsion of holding a human heart with no life or a brain with no mind, the anger and sadness of having to employ the tool of detachment for the professional business of learning. Since then, I have been looking for some sort of closure, a tangible action or symbol to serve as a reference point for the coming day when I will once again be confronted with the paradox of professional compassion.

That search for closure took me back to a particular Saturday night that found me alone in the lab. Understandably so; few people enjoy spending their weekend nights in an anatomy lab. But sometimes laboratories are our special sanctuaries: a place where we can find ourselves alone with the silence of our thoughts, our observations, and the profound presence of something that is both familiar and yet so far removed from our comprehension that it might as well be holy.

As I was concentrating on the dissection, my hand brushed passed the cadaver’s hand. I paused momentarily and wondered how it was that only a month ago the thought of holding a cadaver’s hand sent chills down my spine. I wondered how my heart had come to treat the cadaver with an amiable detachment. It brought to mind a reflection written years ago by a friend when she first began medical school:

Hands that once held a teacup. Hands that once grasped a pen. Hands that once cradled the hand of a lover, patted the head of a grandchild, shook the hand of a friend. Where had those hands been? Whom did they once belong to? Is there a wife, a son, a daughter, a friend somewhere who yet mourns the loss of life in those hands?

I had this odd desire to cry in the middle of the anatomy lab, to grieve for someone I didn’t even know. As my humanity flooded back into me, I began to think about the friends and family whose hands I can’t wait to grasp again. Life… well, it is here today, gone tomorrow. Next time you shake someone’s hand, think of what a blessing it is to be able to do so… and of the Grace that sustains each and every one of us, giving us life and love and the hope of an eternity together in peace.

Hesitating, I reached out and held the cadaver’s hand. I held her hand, casually and leisurely letting myself warm up to the sentiment that it used to be human… was still human in so many ways. I thought about the friends and family that this woman – once filled with age and memories — held onto in her dying days.

I felt privileged to enter into such blind intimacy, but I also felt viscerally disturbed, as if the body gifted to me had somehow reached out and into my own soul. I realized that it was the first dead body I had ever seen, and it didn’t seem to be much of a body at all.

But in the quiet moment of this reflecting, I cannot help but realize that it was not only a cadaver; not just another laboratory specimen. It was a gift, a daughter, a mystery, a lover, a bundle of nerves and muscles, a house of memories. I look at my own hands with wonder. I see its own creases, etched by years of holding on and letting go. In the words of John Keats:

This living hand, now warm and capable of earnest grasping,

would, if it were cold and in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –

I hold it towards you.

I held a human’s hand that night… and let it go. It has since become my reference point. See, here is my own, its purpose yet unfulfilled. It too is something familiar and foreign: my own paradox of humanity. Grasp it and leave it as you wish; I hold it out towards you.

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A Reflection on the Anatomy Lab