by Chien Young
I vividly remember my first visit to the dissection hall. The atmosphere in the waiting room was electrifying, charged by the collective anticipation of 60 first-year medical students. The prospect of being intimate with the deceased is both enthralling and taboo; a most exotic combination. A friend likened it to an uninitiated teenager’s first brush with sex – I grinned in comprehension.
The doors to the dissection hall creaked open, and a hushed silence ensued. A professor stood at the entrance and started lecturing about professional conduct or something… the details I could not remember. I could not pay attention and quite evidently, my 59 peers could not either. We were all drawn by an unfamiliar scent wafting from the hall, one that was generously infused with formaldehyde and had the faintest hint of decomposition. It was icy and clammy. It reeked of death.
10 anxious minutes passed before the professor allowed us to enter. We filed hastily through the door. It was almost like a canteen line of famished school children during recess, only this time, curiosity was our hunger.
The hall was large and unwelcoming. White fluorescent lights hung ominously from the high ceiling and their incandescent rays danced eerily across the hall. Grimed, steel basins were propped against the walls and there were model skeletons placed conveniently within everyone’s reach. A student toyed carelessly with his set of bones; its arm fell cleanly off its shoulder. Pleasant, I thought.
Perhaps the most conspicuous objects around were the dozen or so long, metallic tables that formed the mainstay of the hall. Sheets of white cloth were draped over the tables, concealing what appeared to be fairly sizeable masses; human-sized masses. The smell of it was almost putrid. We formed clusters around these tables, barely able to contain our excitement (and apprehension). For the briefest moment, I entertained the thought of expecting something else resting underneath the layers. A shrivelled toe lurking from beneath the cloth caught my eye, and I knew I was so very wrong.
“You may now lift the sheets..!” exclaimed the professor.
And the sheets went off.
Bodies of all shapes and sizes were lined up neatly on the tables. Some were whole and others were halved while the rest were invariably quartered, skinned, de-boned, flayed, contorted or disembowelled. The macabre sight was a composite between what you would expect from your local butcher and a scene from Saw. Most specimens were browned and shrivelled from the effects of preservation but the sight was no less nauseating.
Yet despite being this deformed, each specimen retained a distinctly human feature in their faces. We could see the peace in their closed eyes and the contours of their lips. Their eyelashes would flutter ever so slightly with every disturbance in the air. Even the moustaches on males felt familiarly prickly. It was as if they were alive, and that they were merely sleeping. It felt as if every conscious provocation could elicit a wakeful response. To see life in something that is obviously dead; that is the highest order of grotesqueness.
I was clearly shaken by the sight but the uneasiness was short-lived. I noticed something remarkable about the bodies; I could see everything, and let me assure you that it was truly a sight to behold. I could see the intricate patterns of blood vessels creeping up the exposed arm as they communicated with each other. I could see the ridges and grooves in each and every bone, and observe how they locked together amicably to form a functional skeleton. Beneath all that skin, I could appreciate individual strands of muscle fibres amongst a bundle of thousands; a level of intricacy far beyond the bulges and biceps that we’re so used to. Every fold of the stomach, lobe of the lung, ring of the gut and fissure in the brain was laid bare for all to observe. No picture or textbook in the world could come close to capturing the level of detail present in a single specimen.
It was a showcase of the mind-numbing complexity within each and every one of us, and that humbled me greatly. But this feeling of being awe-inspired is not exclusive to medical students. The same transcendental moment occurs during a star gazer’s first peek into a telescope, or a budding linguist’s first brush with Shakespeare, or an art lover coming face to face with the Mona Lisa. We all crave for this definitive moment, this affirmation of a calling.
After more than two years of medical school, the hype of interacting with the dead has faded considerably but I will always be appreciative of the knowledge imparted by the deceased. Unfortunately, cadavers are becoming an increasingly scarce commodity and it saddens me to think that future students might not receive the opportunity that I have.
It is this very thought that has motivated me to donate my body to science. I do not care if they hollow out my chest, or detach limb from body, or disembowel me, or if they simply want to make fun of my how strange my face looks post-mortem. I’m going to be dead anyway, and I’d much rather be toyed with by scientists and students than to be worm fodder, six feet underground. My friends think I’m crazy, but I believe it is crazier to not reciprocate the goodwill of the deceased in the dissection hall.
So yes, soak me in formaldehyde, hang me out to dry and do as you please. After I die, of course.
Chien Young is your everyday Malaysian lad who somehow found himself in an Australian medical school. He enjoys the occasional discourse and thinks there is nothing more gratifying than the combination of headphones, good music and the view from the backseat of a moving car.
Image taken from here.