I didn’t think much about death or dying before medical school, much less about sacrifice or what constitutes a noble act. I chose to be a doctor because that’s what seemed like a noble calling to me. Little did I know that nobility comes in many forms, and one of those is literally self-sacrifice.
I went to medical school thinking I was going to study how to preserve life and pursue a career doing so—I didn’t realize I would spend the next thirty years caring for terminally ill patients, literally presiding over thousands of deaths. I started out with one set of presumptions, little knowing that one man’s sacrifice would change those presumptions so completely.
The first day I stepped into my medical school’s cold, sterile anatomy lab, my classmates and I stared wide-eyed at rows upon rows of gleaming steel tanks lining the long, narrow room. Each of these unadorned metal coffins contained a single human body that had been frozen in time by formaldehyde.
Nothing else smells like formaldehyde. It is so strong, it clings to your clothes, your hair, and even your breath long after you exit the room. To this day, if I catch a whiff of formaldehyde, I am instantly transported back to that anatomy lab in my first year of medical school.
Our instructor divided us into groups and assigned us to our respective tanks, introducing us to our cadavers. As you would expect, a cadaver, which is an ex-living person, looks very human. The process required for preservation gives the dead body a waxy appearance and blurred features. When I looked at ours, I remember feeling nauseous.
The majority of our deceased had died from “natural causes,” the euphemism for that gradual slide into the land of the non-living through diseases commonly associated with age.
I learned that our group’s cadaver was 72 years old when he died from a fatal heart attack. He’d done some advanced planning because he donated his body to our group to learn from him how to save the lives of others.
I realized that first day that the young seldom think to donate their bodies to an anatomy lab. They expect instead to be using them for a long time. I deeply respected the nobility of this nameless, blurred-featured, formerly-living man. Out of respect, our group kept the face of our cadaver covered until it was time to examine that area.
My classmates and I stood nervously around our tanks that first day. Working his way around the room, our professor finally made it to our team and said, “Each time you enter the lab you will need to elevate your cadaver from its tank by this procedure. Each day you will be given instructions on what area of the cadaver you will be working. At the end of the day, you will lower the cadaver into the tank and clean your area.”
We never learned anything about our cadaver except his diseases. Perhaps this was a blessing. Had we known much about his life prior to death, I suspect exploring his body after death would have been difficult. It would have certainly been excruciating to help dismember his arms and lower him into the tank.
But all of this training we received was made possible because this man was no longer present in his body. He was gone. No matter what he’d thought about the size of his nose or the length of his hair before he died, all that was over now, and all that was left was this shell.
I realized we spend a lot of time worrying about the shell we’re in, and far too little time concerned with the things that matter most in life.
In all, our team spent four months in that room coming to understand the miracle that is the human body. Each day, we set about “excavating” the cadaver for nerves, arteries and veins. Eventually, we became so accustomed to the work that we were oblivious to the formaldehyde odor permeating the room.
Looking back, our cadaver, our “man,” taught us as much or more than our professor did.
I recall my long-ago thought of doctors being “noble” and realize now that true nobility is found in ordinary people like the anonymous man who donated his body to science. By that one selfless act, he helped educate four young doctors-in-training.
It seems to me that any life that culminates in such a sacrifice must be designated as “good” or at least “resulting in good.” The owner of the body had thought ahead about how he was going to die. As a result, his was a “good” death, a noble death.
I learned that being noble is not just about living with noble character, it’s about dying and planning for that death.
Sacrifice is a beautiful thing when it benefits others.
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