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Medical Humanities

Not Just Any Body

Sarah Halbert


My mom wants to be a cadaver.

Not Yet! Eventually.

This thought has haunted me since the day she morbidly joked, “Would they accept you if you came with your own cadaver?” She asked this as we pondered the gauntlet of my medical school application process. “I think they would call the police,” I laughed back. “But seriously,” she continued, “I think it would be amazing to contribute to learning and medicine in such a unique way.”

My mom has always made clear to our family that she wants to donate her body to science. She wants to make a difference, and she finds no value in being placed in a box under the ground to decompose. I am relieved that my mother and I can candidly discuss her end-of-life goals and post-mortem wishes, though they are hopefully decades away from becoming relevant. It is important for my family to struggle with these concepts long before it is too late. This will ideally prevent the distress and disagreement that often accompany such conversations. 

My mom sees a body as an empty vessel - but one that is brimming with possibilities. She wants to be a resource and to provide as much value and insight as she can to the next generation of medical professionals. I admire her for this generosity, but it has led to some rather peculiar conversations.

“You should find out how I arrange to do this. What do I do? Can you ask your anatomy professor?”

I am now a first year medical student attending my very first week of classes. No, mom, I laugh back. I am not going to ask my brand new professor how my mother can donate her body. (I did commit to finding out who she should contact.) I had only recently been assigned a cadaver in anatomy lab, and I was starting to realize just how uncomfortable the entire idea made me.

Anatomy lab, that sacred rite of passage for medical students, has already profoundly affected my perspectives. It has instilled in me a sense of awe and respect for the beauty and complexity that is the human body; I am astounded by how many individual events and processes need to occur precisely for us to get out of bed, to solve a problem, to communicate with another person. I owed it to the individual on the table, and ultimately my mother, to treat this gift—one of the most precious, personal, and selfless things I will ever have the privilege of receiving—with requisite respect. Now that I have completed anatomy lab, I want to ensure that future classes of students get the chance to appreciate this formative, breathtaking, frustrating, and absolutely unique experience.

And yet …

I am selfish. I know that a brand new medical student doesn’t always know how to be professional and doesn’t always make the most respectful choices. We would like to believe without doubt that anatomy lab is flawless from the get go, that we medical students all perfectly demonstrate our respect for the human gifts on the tables in every way possible. However, we know that isn’t always the case. Scalpel blades get left in bodies; tired students make unintentionally judgmental remarks about their cadaver’s characteristics as they struggle to find a structure; or a body is left uncovered overnight. With each transgression we resolve to do better, we educate one another, and we grow. That growth excites my mom. She wants to help a new student begin to wonder and understand. Still, knowing this made getting through lab more difficult. How could I cut, pull, tear, and break without imagining another student doing the same to her? 

I do not want my mom’s body to be scrutinized, pulled apart, and judged. Resented for how much or little fat she has, and thus how hard it is to clean out a cavity or keep her muscles moist. How those muscles are too big or small. How the vasculature of her pelvis is some bizarre variation that won’t ever show up on a practical exam. She is my mother. She teaches yoga and works as a veterinarian. She loves to complete the New York Times’ crossword puzzle every day, and watches football all of the time. She has picked up and moved jobs two times in the last two years alone to support my father’s career, despite having her own. She hates it when I leave the kitchen a mess, and she loves sitting and swapping silly stories over a glass of wine.

But just as the flood of these thoughts threatens to overwhelm me, I remind myself of why this is so important to her. I remember the impact that anatomy lab had on me. Medical students will pore over ever inch of her. They will be thrilled when they identify a new structure and estatic when they uncover an anomaly that they discussed in lecture just the day before. As I did with my cadaver- my first patient- they will pick her apart and wonder how those structures and anomalies influenced how she lived and died. Who was she? What did she do? Who misses her? What health problems did she have? And like me, they will reference her anatomy and personhood every time they see a new patient. What higher honor is there? 

I admire her. What she has chosen to do is noble and brave. She doesn’t demand that the medical student working on her go on to cure a disease, though she loves the idea. She wants to be one key that opens one door for one individual’s medical journey. 

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Sarah Halbert is a first year medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. She has a degree in neuroscience and music from Wellesley College.