Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Meditation on a Familiar Theme, or “What’s in a Name?”

When I was a first-year medical student, our anatomy course lasted a full year. We were divided into teams of about 8 to a body, taking turns dissecting one section each semester. I got the upper extremity and lower extremities of our lady and distinctly remember having the lab to myself in October 2008, listening to the presidential debates on the radio while scooping fat out of the back of her knee. At the end of the year, the class gathered with our instructors to honor the dead. One of my mentors gave a succinct sketch of the history of body donation. I delivered the following piece, composed in protest against the professors who pooh-poohed the tradition of naming cadavers, and as a gentle admonishment of the tradition's well-meaning hubris.

I do not own the rights to this poem, or to the body that was donated to my medical education.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

A Meditation on a Familiar Theme, or “What’s in a Name?”
A Reading for the Cadaver Memorial Service on May 12, 2009

“Map of the Interior, a Mostly Found Poem”
by Leslie Adrienne Miller,
as published in The Resurrection Trade

Vesalius has failed to give his name
to any anatomical part.  In this
he differs from intrepid others
who found it de rigueur to map
with pen and paper after they’d applied
the knife.  Hence we have the airway
of Eustachius, the tube of Fallopius,
the duct of Botallus, the circle
of Willis, the lobeof Spigelius,
the fissue of Sylvius, the glands
of Bartholin, the island of Reil,
the ganglion of Gasser, the  cartilage
of Arantius, the sinus of Valsalva,
the tubercle of Lower, the valves
of Morgagni, the torcular of Herophilus[,]
the veins of Galen, and the alleged
spot of Grafenberg.

To name is to claim ownership or mastery. Adam named the animals in the Garden of Eden as a sign of humankind’s dominion over the created world. When these men in Miller’s poem bestowed their names or their colleagues’ on glands and fascia, they staked their claims to mastery of the recesses of the human body.

We called our donor Gertrude.

But to rename does a certain violence to what is being erased or covered over. Europeans often renamed places and people in Africa, Asia, and in the New World (new only to the colonizers, of course). In the last century, Communists renamed St. Petersburg “Leningrad” and Saigon is now “Ho Chi Minh City.”

Sometimes we joked about “Good Old Gerty” and her anatomical variations.

Developing a relationship with my nicknamed cadaver was an important part of my anatomy lab experience. I would greet her when I got into lab, and I talked to her about the joys and frustrations of dissecting. I tried to remember these were not “my” muscles and nerves and blood vessels, but hers.  So although I want to acknowledge the violence we did to substitute our idea of our donor for her lived identity, I also want to give us credit for good intentions. “This will be your first patient,” we were told. If you did not rename your cadaver, hopefully this was the last patient you did not refer to by name, instead of by disease or number. I’d like to think that Gertrude would understand.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments let me know that I am not just releasing these thoughts into the Ether...