Here we were, five first-year students less than two weeks into medical school, about to go through an intimate rite of passage on our paths to becoming doctors. It was an exceptionally intimate one at that, although we were just starting to get to know each other. Standing over that long, white bag with a lump at one end and a circus tent-like protrusion at the other, we asked each other the same questions we’d been asking all of our classmates the last two weeks: “So, where’s home?” “Where’d you do your undergrad?” “Where in Providence are you living?”
Once we had exhausted all of our small talk, a patient second-year student began to speak to us. He spoke clinically about which textbooks we might find most useful to study, why we should bring food and take a break (apparently formaldehyde makes you hungry), and why we will need to wear masks when operating the bone saw. We listened enough to know when to laugh and when to look serious, but our eyes kept expectantly looking down towards that white bag. Finally, the student announced he was going to unzip the bag. I’m not sure if it was the ceremonial magnitude of the moment, curiosity, or uneasiness that was making my heart beat fast and hard in my chest. Perhaps it was the fear of looking disgusted or afraid in front of my future colleagues. Or perhaps it was a mixture of all of these things.
When our guide unzipped and pulled back the flap of the bag, we all gazed cautiously at the figure. The skin was pallid, the chest was slightly deflated from the perfusion of the formaldehyde, and the skin looked unresponsive and rubbery. Dermatologists had got to it first, circling and labeling “points of interest” on the thorax and the upper arms.
As I stood over this body with my classmates, I did not see the anatomically average human figure from my textbooks. I saw a man, both barrel-chested and emaciated, with unique wrinkles in the crux of the elbow. With hair on his chest. Long, grey hair on his chest.
John is from Lincoln, MA, and he graduated from Williams College in 2014.