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Sacred and Profane: Balancing the sanctity of the human body with the mechanics of cadaver dissection

By Michael Dauzvardis

Often heard on the first day of anatomy lab:

“Oh— I’m so glad the cadaver doesn’t look real. It is gray and ashen.  The skin is wrinkled and the head is shaven. I can do this— I’ll make the first cut.”

In fall, in medical schools across the country, students begin their initial rite of passage on their journey to becoming a physician by undertaking the task of cadaver dissection.  It is the job of the anatomy faculty to assist the students in this profane act by teaching them how to use scalpels, long knives, saws, hammers, and chisels in the disassembly of the human body.  At the same time, it is also the job of the anatomy faculty, campus ministry, and other enlightened students to hit the “spiritual reset button” and remind all dissectors not to neglect the “human” in human dissection.  Most medical schools now have an opening (and closing) ceremony focusing on the sacredness of the human body and the unselfish gift and generosity of the donors…

During lab, if I notice students, other faculty, or even myself getting a little too blasé with the removal of an organ or disarticulation of an extremity, I begin to engage in a little exercise I call “PERHAPS”…

Perhaps this 92 year old cadaver was named Frank.

Perhaps Frank was an only child and his parents cried when he was born.

Perhaps Frank played baseball in an empty sandlot in Chicago and broke both a window and a bone in his right foot.

Perhaps Frank worked evenings and weekends in his grandfather’s bakery during high school.

Perhaps Frank stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II.

Perhaps Frank made love in the back of a 47 Chevy.

Perhaps Frank married his high school sweetheart.

Perhaps Frank cried at the birth of his first child.

Perhaps Frank was a police officer.

Perhaps Frank worried that his daughter would contract polio.

Perhaps Frank knew exactly where he was when President Kennedy was shot.

Perhaps Frank marveled at the landing of the first man on the moon.

Perhaps Frank suffered at the hands of the 1969 Cubs.

Perhaps Frank bought his first color TV in 1970

Perhaps Frank cried at the wedding of his daughter and the birth of his first grandchild.

Perhaps Frank cried when his parents passed.

Perhaps Frank loved to fly-fish.

Perhaps Frank loved to partake of scotch on the rocks.

Perhaps Frank loved to play Hearts, 31, and Risk.

Perhaps Frank was diagnosed with cancer.

Perhaps Frank came to realize that the gift of his body would help future doctors perfect their craft.

Perhaps Frank’s wife, children and grandchildren cried at his passing.

Also often heard on the first day of anatomy lab:

“He looks so peaceful— almost asleep.  Let’s cover his face and groin until we are ready to study those regions.  Did you notice his tattoo? – and the scar on his foot?  Does anyone want to make the first incision?”

Michael Dauzvardis, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Medical Education at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.  He holds a doctorate in anatomy and has been recognized by the Stritch students with numerous teaching awards.

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