On Ash Wednesday in the Catholic Church, a priest smears ashes on our foreheads while repeating, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This ominous proverb has to be the biggest crossover between Catholicism and the string theory. It might as well be: “Remember you are carbon and hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen too, and to these you shall return.”
I am an emotional person of consistent yet wavering, or consistently wavering, faith in a god. I suspected that the cadaver lab at a highly competitive medical school was the place for an atheist scientist, not someone like me, whose beliefs can be best summarized as “If there is a god, surely she can do whatever she wants, even evolve a universe.”
Surprisingly though, the knowledge that we are nothing and yet connected to everything steeled me as we took apart a human body piece by piece. I believe that the body is simply a vessel, a vessel we wear around our mortal souls. Or, if ‘souls’ is too parochial for you, a vessel we wear about our intangible essences. Or, if ‘intangible essences’ is too crunchy for you, a vessel we wear to contain the electricity bouncing down our Nodes of Ranvier.
Our cadaver died as a result of metastatic serous carcinoma, an invasive ovarian cancer. Her abdomen was full of scar tissue which had fused her oversized liver to her diaphragm. She was missing her gall bladder, appendix and much of her ascending colon. Her diseased ovaries had been overtaken by tumors. As we frustratingly removed the scarring from her abdomen, it hit me like a wave that hers was not a painless death. How could it have been, with her internal everything maimed and displaced and invaded? It was an obvious thought and yet one I hadn’t had in the previous month of daily dissection. I instantly thought of the glioblastoma brain tumor that killed my beloved godmother. What had the inside of her skull looked like at the end? I was glad I didn’t know.
But she believed and I believe that the body is simply a vessel and we have seen that the body is complex and flawed and sometimes perfectly Netter and sometimes scarred beyond recognition.
Our white coats are also a vessel, containing the electricity of our neurons, the intangible essences of our complex personas and our beautiful, ethereal souls, any or all or none of which you may believe in. That’s between you and your god or you and your Darwin. But between you and me, I think that we, flawed specks of dust though we are, are the perfect vessels for the healing work to be done during our blip in the life of the universe.
May we strive always to be worthy of this gift, the gift to see inside them and inside ourselves.
|after 3 months of human anatomy together.|