"By the end of today you'll hold a human heart in your hands. It's amazing!" Goslow says. Until this point I had been diligently taking notes in the first pages of my fresh notebook, but as he conjures this image, I stop and sit quietly, a little slack-jawed.
Suddenly we are talking about reaching the cadaver's heart and lungs, and I have barely begun to get used to the idea of the initial cut through a dead body's skin. Friends of mine who finished medical school before me had alluded to the pace of the course when I asked about acclimation. "You don't have much time to process," one friend said. "There's just too much to get done." This class would be a baptism by fire. We would be given driving instructions and a car with no brakes. Twice a week we would spend seven hours a day in the anatomy lab, where we could make right turns or wrong turns, but we would most certainly be moving. Dr. Goslow's tone is encouraging, yet also utterly straightforward: "This will be fascinating, frustrating, and technically and emotionally difficult, but it will also get done. We don't have much time, so get started."
-- excerpt from Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab, by Christine Montross
This summer I watched a bullhead fish get beheaded, skinned, and gutted. I played it cool for about 2 minutes before I had to sit down with my head between my knees while taking deep cleansing breaths. I am, most assuredly, not cut out to be a doctor. Nevertheless, I look on all forms of life with both academic interest and reverent awe. Words on a page serve as a sort of psychological hazmat suit that lets me educate myself without putting the contents of my stomach at risk.
Part reflective memoir, part intro to gross anatomy, and part history lesson, Body of Work was hard to categorize, both on the bookshelf and on my Best of 2012 list. I knew it was one of my favorite reads this year, but why? It was informative and inspiring, but I felt like naming it either one of those things with a capital "I" wouldn't call enough attention to everything else it did well.
I eventually named it my Most Beautiful because it was so uniquely multi-faceted. Montross was a poet and college writing instructor before she decided to go to medical school, and her varied background gives her the ability to write with intelligence, empathy, and lyricism.
When she spoke of bones, muscles and tendons and how they interact with the brain, my fascination with such things was renewed. How amazing that even in death putting pressure on part X makes part Y react. Her chapters on the controversial history of human dissection sent a horde of plot bunnies scampering through my head. Did you know that in the nineteenth century there was a serial killer duo that sold the bodies of their victims to anatomists? They killed 16 people before they were caught, and it wasn't because the anatomy schools finally thought to question where all the fresh corpses were coming from. Nope, just a bit of carelessness combined with some suspicious visitors. And the best part? Following his execution, one of the body snatchers was dissected as a special event, and this was back in the days when buying tickets to watch a dissection was like getting tickets to the movies.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Body of Work are the personal accounts of the author as she and her classmates deal with the ethical dilemmas that plague every member of the medical field. Before I read this book, when I thought about PTSD my mind conjured up images of soldiers and victims of abuse and other traumatic experiences. Rarely did I think of doctors. That changed when I got inside the head of a medical student as they made their first cut, as they gritted their teeth while sawing through bone, as they made off-color jokes to their peers to disguise the uncertainty roiling inside them, as they went home exhausted from a long day at the lab only to lay awake for fear of the nightmares.
People become doctors so they can heal. People also have some eons old hang-ups about death. It takes a certain strength of character to be willing to face the latter in order to learn how to effectively do the former. But Body of Work does not place doctors on a kind of moral and intellectual pedestal. Rather, it was the humanization of these aspiring professionals that made me respect what they do all the more.
It's interesting that writing about elves has been the catalyst to my increasingly more nuanced perspective on humans. I've discovered that painting humanity with one brush is as tired and uninspiring as making all elves aloof, leaf-munching hippies with a superiority complex. As a writer I need to be able to see any given person as an individual, and I need to be capable of celebrating their virtues while giving equal thought to their flaws. It's Reality 101.
To run away from reality - the most complex, tangible thing I can experience - is to deprive myself of something beautiful.