Our cadaver is male. He was old when he died. I don’t remember his face.
There are maybe ten of us in our white coats. We crowd around the table where he lies in an open black body bag, his head resting on a block of wood. We drape a paper towel over his genitals. We have seen human remains before, single limbs unpeeled to varying degrees. He is whole. He is the first one that is ours.
Some people in my group are eager, scalpel-happy. Others hang back, preferring to watch rather than to cut. I am one of the eager ones. I had a career before, my own office with a cluttered bookshelf and a wilted plant. I have waited a long time.
Here in the dissecting room, we medical students mutilate corpses and get course credit instead of court appearances. We have done this for hundreds of years, a macabre ancient club.
Our cadaver has been screened for viruses and bacteria. He is clean. We now know that these cause disease. In the past we believed the cause to be noxious vapours or dirty air.
Most things we know about the human body today are different from what those medical students knew hundreds of years ago. But the task before us must be the same. Muscle yields to blade, whatever the theory for how the fibres contract.
I hack away a pad of flesh on the palm of our cadaver’s hand. I feel guilty, although I sliced his skin, ripped away the tissue between his muscles with gloved hands, threaded a finger under a tendon and tugged to move his toes without a second thought.
Perhaps it is because I find this flap of flesh inelegant. Outside this room, anatomy is a Rembrandt (at the very least a sepia-toned poster on Etsy). Here it is as awkward and messy as bodies are in life. I drop my ID card into a puddle in the body bag and have to disinfect it. A roughly cut slab of tissue flops onto a cold steel bench.
When we are done I pack my white coat in its white plastic bag and free my hair of its elastic. I am glowing. I have wished for years that I might one day go through this rite of passage. I am in the club.
It is not until much later that the discomfort begins to gnaw at me. This man left us his skin and nerve, muscle and artery and bone. There is nothing metaphorical about it.
The leg that we unwrapped and clumsily repackaged carried him for decades. I am not a religious person. I believe that what lay on the table in front of me is all he ever was. I do not know if I understand anatomy better for having disassembled him.
Isabelle Lomax-Sawyers: Izzy is a Dunedin-based medical student, humanities graduate, reformed political hack and semi-professional procrastinator. Despite having no office now she still has a cluttered bookshelf. She blogs sporadically at raspberrystethoscope.tumblr.