We are now on the last leg of the anatomy course, pun not intended. Today was the grand unveiling of the face, which for the past months has been shrouded in a white cloth cover underneath a black plastic bag. During the course of the semester, I'd frequently glanced at the head region and wondered what my response to finally seeing the head and neck would be. Would I run out of the room screaming? Or burst into tears? Leave and never come back?
I know that my classmates have at times dreamed about or felt emotional regarding anatomy, but it seems like it's something we keep under wraps, that we discuss with our closer friends in medical school. In lab, it's more about scavenging around for the correct muscles, digging for arteries, and treasure-hunting for those elusive and easily-severed nerves. We focus our energies on getting the task at hand done, and there's seldom space for reflection during laboratory sessions.
I entered the semester keenly aware of every cut I was making, every chunk of flesh removed, and every moment consciously aware that I am dissecting a fellow human being. Now towards the end of the semester, I don't feel that I'm less aware of what I'm doing, but somehow there's a sense of "getting used to it," such that I'm not creeped out or mortified any longer. Being splattered by fat or inhaling the fumes of embalming fluid hardly faze me anymore. I remember my group on the first day - how tentatively we made our first cut into the back! How we wore masks to prevent the splatter from hitting our face or even worse, getting into our mouths (God forbid)!
So how was it, seeing the face of our cadaver for the first time? I can say that it did not perturb me in either way. I glanced around the room at the other cadavers, and one of my groupmates summed it up well, "At least she looks...peaceful." Seeing her face humanizes everything a bit more, but at the same time, after going through all this, I feel like the body is merely just that. After death, it is just a shell or covering. What animates it and makes it that person is no longer there. Though today's not my turn to dissect, I'm glad I suited up and went in for the beginning anyway. The skin of the face will be removed by my groupmates, and on Thursday (when I do need to be there to dissect), the face will no longer be what it was. I'm glad I got to pay this last respect to my cadaver, since the face is the most "human" part of what's left of her now, and even that will be gone soon. It's been a whirlwind journey in many ways, and it's definitely not over yet - I know the cranial nerves, the myriad orifices and foramina of the skull, all await me - but it's good to pause here and be thankful for what I've learned and seen thus far.
As I left lab today, I saw a few of my classmates standing outside in tears, having had emotional reactions to what we've just witnessed. It's a moment of reflection for us all. I've already had my first teary moment in front of a professor and fellow students last week, and perhaps this is just the beginning. I think we'll be getting used to supporting each other and seeing each others' vulnerabilities as the years progress. But it's better this way. The worst thing to do would be to bury or repress these emotions.
Growing up, tears were always viewed as a huge sign of weakness in my family. When being lectured by a stern parent, the way to surely tick them off further would be to burst into tears. But over the years, I've come to acknowledge that tears have nothing to do with how "tough" or "strong" someone is. They're merely a sign or expression of emotion, and perhaps the only link to toughness/strength is whether one has the will or desire to keep them in or let them out. In light of the death that I seem to encounter now on a regular weekly, if not daily, basis, and in light of the death-encountering aspects of the profession that I have chosen, strength is not measured by how stoic and unemotional one can be.