Danny, My Cadaver

03 February 2020

Dr Michelle Mah

Cadaver. A cold, lifeless body lying on a cold, hard slab.

I first met my cadaver in September 1998 as a first-year medical student at Manipal University. His half-opened eyes were dry and filmy, his tongue was pale and flushed.

My cadaver wasn’t handsome, but I still giggled at the sight of him, for he was naked.

It was intimidating to actually take a knife and cut into a human body - I tried not to feel like a barbaric cannibal as I cut through human skin for the first time. I thanked my cadaver for giving me the opportunity to dissect him, praying and hoping that I would not faint as some of my classmates had. I muttered apologies to my cadaver for causing him pain even though I knew that he couldn’t feel it. Tearing open a thick layer of skin was much harder than tearing the gashes on our knees or mouth cuts, but when I split his chest open with scalpels, it suddenly occurred to me that scalpers could be mightier than swords.

I could neither sleep nor eat properly after my first dissection. The stench of rotting flesh and the pungent smell of the formalin used to preserve my cadaver were so nauseating that I could taste it in the water I drank and the air I breathed. Nightmares of my cadaver peeking at me through my bathroom window kept me awake for nights.  

Realising that I would be spending quite some time with my cadaver, I decided to give him a name, “Danny”, after the carved name on my cadaver’s forearm. Danny was a wonderful listener for he never judged my thoughts. Whenever I began to feel guilty for sharing too much of my dark thoughts with Danny, I started to concoct stories of Danny’s life in my mind. His dark, scrawny body sent my imagination wild: I thought he must be a homeless, miserable man who died of starvation. I sympathised with the tragic life I imagined Danny to have, and I convinced myself that Danny must have sympathised with me too.

When the exam was nearing, we spent most of the time practising with our cadaver. Limbs and organs were being passed around, and cries of “Who took my head?” could be frequently heard.  
Dissecting a cadaver was becoming as normal as writing an essay, and the borrowing of body parts was as normal as borrowing a pencil. As I examined the heart that I had plucked out of Danny, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was perhaps becoming more heartless than my cadaver. It was common for medical schools to beat the empathy out of its students, but right there and then, with Danny as my witness, I vowed to never let it happen.

21 years later, as I joined twenty other medical practitioners to sing to bring joy to the patients of our hospital, I realised with a sense of pride that I had kept my vow.

Tags: tales, hospital

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