by Shivali Shukla

The day prior, I watched a funeral procession glide past me, my own tires trailing slowly behind. All those cars, each with someone mourning the loss of a person they once knew. How many of those people actually knew the one they lost? Actually understood what their experience with life had been like, their heartache and heartbreak?

I immediately thought back to my grandfather’s funeral a few years back. The five of us – me, my older sister, my mom, my aunt, and my grandma – sat on a stiff, colorless couch in the front row of the funeral home. People I’d never met before came forward to pay their respects, some emanating sincerity, some not quite so. I had wondered what my grandfather, my Nana, would have felt if he could witness his own funeral.

I watched in silence as my mom, gravely in denial, desperately grasped at any sign of life in Nana’s casket. She tormentedly demanded that someone see what she could: Nana’s chest still expanding, as if he were breathing. My aunt, a physician, explained to my mom that what she was seeing wasn’t life, while I tried unsuccessfully to force my eyes into seeing what my mom was begging for. And then my sister whispered in my ear: “Wait, I see it, too. He’s moving.”

Rigor mortis. After death, our bodies begin to stiffen. Our muscles first relax, and as ATP stores diminish, they stop contracting. That process can take up to 4 days, and until then, twitches and subtle movements are still viable.

So maybe what my mom and my sister saw was real, but it wasn’t life.

I went to bed anxious the night I watched the funeral procession before me, worrying about anatomy lab the following day. I knew my cadaver wouldn’t move like Nana had. But while my grandfather’s funeral had been a source of grief, it had also been a source of fear for me. That day, I had overwhelmingly felt everyone’s emotions billowing around me except for his. The wonted emotions I could once easily predict would emanate from him were coldly absent. Where I expected to sense compassion and love, I instead felt nothing.

His lifeless body was just that – lifeless.

What lay in front of me now felt almost like an object, a doll dressed in his finest clothes, fictitiously adorned in makeup. It wasn’t Nana. This person I loved was suddenly emotionally unrecognizable, which frightened me. With dissection approaching, I worried that the same sensation would arise again when I saw my cadaver – the sensation of a void that was once pervaded by emotion. Wasn’t a human body supposed to feel… human?

My partners and I unzipped our cadaver bag and pulled down the sheet covering her body. I had a hard time tearing my eyes away. There lying in front of me was a human being who had donated her body for me to learn from. Prior to dissection, I heard the same piece of advice relentlessly repeated: “Do not think of your cadaver as a life. Think of them as part of your education; learn everything you can.”

Despite all that, my first thought still was to canvass the life she had lived. I desperately wanted to know her story.
As we worked our way through layers of epidermis down to the pectoralis muscles, we located a wire in our cadaver’s chest. Had she been ill? Did she have a heart condition, like Nana had?

Instantly inundated with questions erring on the edge of superfluity, I found myself distracted. What persuaded her to choose to donate her body for strangers to pick apart and scrupulously examine? What would her family think, knowing three students were at that very moment involved in the disassembly of their loved one? Were her grandchildren, like I once was, currently reminiscing about summer days spent on park swings, fourth of July barbecues spent lakeside, tales of a life lived long before they were conceived?

Most pressingly, at what point had she gone from someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s neighbor, to a corporeal textbook?

Or… did she not have anyone at all?

Trying to separate personhood from body is an almost meaningless task. I know we’re meant to focus on the science of it all, studying the details of our cadaver’s anatomy, not the details of her lived experience. It’s probably the practical thing to do. But maybe there’s an in-between space, a space where the personal anecdotes make the science matter in the context of a life we can’t expect to understand. In the lab, I found myself comforted by the fact that lying before me was someone with a story I could try to piece together. Someone whose physical and emotional scars didn’t disappear postmortem. Her frown lines, the remaining scraps of prior frustrations. Her laugh lines, remnants of jokes told long ago. The nail polish chipping off her fingernails, perhaps a souvenir from the last wedding she exuberantly dressed up for. Even the scar delineating her sternum, marking what had likely been weeks of discomfort.

While no single residuum could wholly reassemble her story, each offered solace in the face of fearing the unknown. Although I couldn’t feel her emotions at that moment, I knew they once existed. The clues were all there; I just needed to remember to look.

The foundation of my desire to pursue medicine is built on the idea that each patient is a story waiting to be heard, and I don’t believe my cadaver eluded that rule. By giving her body to be used by physicians-in-training, dissection became a part of her journey. She, naturally, became the reason why I will always remember the muscles of the forearm and the nerves innervating the palm. But, unknowingly, she also became a source of strength; she became someone who helped a stranger overcome her trepidations. The story I desperately tried to cultivate from the body in front of me had eased my preliminary fears; particularly, the fear of sensing a void that would normally be permeated by emotion. Probing the humanity we once shared gave life to what I was learning from my cadaver’s selfless donation of her body.

I am entering a field where we, by necessity, pervert the natural form and function of the human body. We implant wires and electrodes to fix a broken heart, drain blood from the body only to put it back again when the kidneys have decided they have had enough. I fear I’ll one day start to see the human body more as a machine than a collective sum of emotion, thought, and lived experience. But I also know I have the tools to prevent that. Questioning each and every experience of those we encounter, while conceivably erring on the edge of avoiding personal invasion, offers clues to the manifestation of illness that our eyes cannot see. And, after all, if illness and disease did not pervade the socioemotional composition of those around us, patients wouldn’t care to see us in the first place. If it weren’t for the discomfort or debilitation that often accompanies disease, would we have careers? That discomfort, or that debilitation, extends far beyond its physical manifestation, and perhaps there’s healing to be found in probing that.

Nana used to quiz me on every little thing – on holidays we didn’t even celebrate, on history lessons from a country I’d never been to, on people I was only just about to meet. To him, every question opened a trove of stories worth learning, stories that illuminated the interconnectedness of humanity.

So now here I am, quizzing myself.