On it (and distancing language from death and the dead)

His name is Harold. Not Harry. Harold.

In some ways, I will know him better than anyone else knew him. In other ways, in the most meaningful ways, I will know nothing about him.

He lived a life before he arrived at this anatomy lab– I hope a happy one surrounded with loving family and close friends– and he lives another life on this cold stainless steel table under the bright fluorescent lights. I can never repay him the sacred gift of his body for my education. I can love him, appreciate his every sinew and fiber, treasure every lesson learned, and regret that I’ll never be able to thank him in this life.

To me, the rules around death and dying never seemed to make much sense. We go about our lives carefully avoiding the subject, but the accrued interest of betting against our inevitable future comes crashing down on us in times of emergency or prolonged illness. In my first days of medical school, I realized that even within the profession of healing, the taboo exists and thrives like a weed that gets trimmed but never fully pulled.

In Anatomy & Physiology, med students learn the human body’s structure and function from donated cadavers. Each cadaver is a sacrifice for the next generation; during life, they individually decided to give their body to science upon their death. Within our lab, there are 24 deceased humans of all different shapes, sizes, and ages. There are five students to a group, two groups to a cadaver, and each group dissects a specific side of their cadaver (my group is exploring Harold’s left side).

My introduction to Harold did not resemble my imagined first encounter with him.

Harold resides in a stainless steel box at about waist height, with two lids on top that encase him and flip over the sides to reveal his covered form. If you looked at the boxes quickly, you’d think they belonged in a professional kitchen. A set of levers and pulleys raise Harold from the bottom of the box to the level of the lids for easier access. He smells strongly of formaldehyde, a preservative to keep his body from rotting during the year-long dissection.

Blue terry-cloth towels covered Harold, the kind you’d find at home under the sink. A large towel draped over him from his chest to his knees and a smaller, almost napkin-sized, towel was centered on his face. I’d never seen a dead, lifeless person before that moment. I didn’t prepare myself mentally, emotionally, or spiritually for that experience. I had thought the session would be a review of the tools and of the expectations of lab, not a direct encounter with death personified.

On that first day, we were told that if our cadavers were face-up, then we must flip them over because our first dissections would be of the back muscles. A Teaching Assistant came over, took the towels off his body, revealing his pale and stiff face, and asked me to help shift Harold’s weight over to the other side of the box. In more shock than false bravado, I assisted in turning Harold over to his belly. I didn’t feel comfortable voicing my discomfort, we all seemed to implicitly agree that our vulnerabilities were not to be discussed– at least not here, not now.

I distinctly remember his nose and how a pair of horn-rimmed glasses would suit his face.

On our second lab session, with the cadavers face-down and our assignments ready, we began our dissections. Throughout the two-hour session, I noticed the language used by my peers and faculty.

“It has a lot of fat tissue, we’ll need to cut that away.”
“You’ll need to cut deeper into it, otherwise you won’t find the muscles underneath.”
“Could you lift the arm? I need to make an incision on its side.”

Through a quiet consensus, the cadavers became its. They were not people with rich histories– they weren’t women who bore children, fathers who lost sons. Upon their deaths, they lost their personhood. Some had mentioned that these bodies would be our first patients, but we would never use this language when talking about an ailing and scared man.

Word choice is subtle and telling. For most people, pronouns are background noise to our everyday conversation, only needed for grammatical clarity. For a transgender person, pronouns are ways to seize identity or have it stripped away from them. For the living, pronouns seem to be a small but essential barrier from the dead and death.

I briefly brought up the idea of naming my cadaver and met surprisingly strong resistance. Perhaps I should have voiced my vulnerabilities– that I didn’t feel comfortable calling him it, that I felt he had a story that needed to be honored. To my shame, I stayed silent and dropped the subject.

So, to my group and to the world he is it.

To me, he is Harold.

Every time I walk into lab, I will place a gloved hand on him and say his name to myself. I say it to honor him and his sacrifice. I touch him to recognize the life he lives with us– he will teach us lessons that we cannot learn from anyone else. I whisper Harold because I know he had a life and a name before he arrived in this lab.

I hope I never forget his name, even though it is not his name, because to forget his name is to forget that he was once a man, just like me.

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