Pink Dots and Cadavers

Megan Lynch

Writer’s comment: This essay seemed to almost write itself. We were assigned to write a reflective essay, and since I was currently applying to medical school and had just finished Human Anatomy class, the extremely vivid images described in this paper were crystal clear in my memory. Sometimes it is hard to sift through the multitude of information filling our ears every day and figure out just who is the “expert” on any particular topic. I don’t claim to be any such expert and do realize that the decision to donate your body after death has many sides and is extremely personal. The experiences I encountered over the last year helped me put my mind at ease about my decision to donate my body after death. I hope this essay provides a positive viewpoint about donor programs to anyone reading it. I don’t know, though; maybe it also should be grouped with all the other lopsided stories spread by non-experts that are good only for going in one ear and out the other, but I hope not.
—Megan Lynch

Instructor’s comment: Megan wrote this paper for my section of English 102, a course for students in the health sciences. In that course I focus on the genres of physicians’ writing—an exceptionally broad spectrum that demonstrates how writers shape texts to fit rhetorical situations. The assignments for the course (abstract, collaborative review article, personal statement, technical explanation for a lay audience reading at 8th grade level) extend the students’ control over styles and forms. The earlier readings and assignments are in fairly prescribed or conventional forms, but the last assignment, a reflective essay, gives the students the greatest freedom or challenge as writers. It also allows them to use subjectivity—so avoided in the technical writing of physicians and so often burgeoning in their non-fiction—to explore or create meaning. Megan’s essay, to my mind, excels as a reflective essay. I knew that she began her thinking, as she begins her essay, with an image that had stayed with her. But later, as a reader, I was startled and delighted to follow her exploration of that image’s meaning. After its opening, the essay doesn’t go in a predictable direction; I like the tight focus of the essay combined with Megan’s very individual (but so human) speculation and reflection.
—Susan Palo, Campus Writing Center

As we stood over the precisely dissected bodies, trying to distinguish between the phrenic and vagus nerves, the greater and lesser omentums, and the left and right gastroepiploic arteries, I inadvertently looked away from my prosection and saw Stephanie (one of the TAs) walking across the room carrying a human head face down against her palm. This sight forced me to recognize a truth about these prosections; these body pieces, picked clean of fat and connective tissue, were at one time all components of a complete, living human being like each of us enrolled in Human Anatomy 101L. When I reached Stephanie’s station I found that I couldn’t concentrate on the facial arteries or the various muscles that help us pucker-up or smile. Instead, I kept staring at the final facial expression of a once living, breathing, elderly man who seemed to have taken a quite unpleasant exit from the living world. And now that man, or at least his head, had ended up on a HA 101L classroom bench being poked and prodded by a complete stranger.
      There were three completely stocked human anatomy labs holding a total of six classes every week during the 1992 winter quarter. Spread thoughout each lab room were six different stations displaying six different viewpoints of that day’s featured body system. Also located in these lab rooms, but off limits to us, was “the room behind the closed door.” Every so often, when the door was carelessly left ajar, we did manage to grab a peek of the secret room beyond. Filling every cubic inch (50 ft deep, 20 ft wide & 20 ft high) of the room lying beyond the door were steel gurneys stacked upon one another; upon each layer were sealed plastic bags containing cotton cocoons of corpses waiting to be unwrapped and dissected. Who were these people who donated their bodies? Hadn’t they heard the stories of all the gruesome acts and experiments performed on bodies once “science” got ahold of them? And why, after hearing all the circulating horror stories, did they still decide to donate their bodies?
      A couple of days after the “head-experience,” I was checking our lab manual for the date of an upcoming exam, and I came upon a letter entitled “The Donated Body Program.” It was written by the former human anatomy professor, Hugh Patterson, Ph.D. In the short letter, Dr. Patterson recounted his experiences with many of the individuals who had planned to donate their bodies to the program after their deaths. He writes, “As the director of this program, I often speak to these people and I am very impressed with them. In showing the ability to view their own death as an opportunity to give us an educational gift, they give special meaning to the words ‘Oh death, where is thy sting.’” I believe that Dr. Patterson is trying to convey the message that death does not always have to signify finality; by donating one’s body for others to learn from, one’s existence is extended beyond the point when the heart stops beating and the blood ceases to flow. In his last couple of comments, Dr. Patterson expresses his wish that each of us students would recognize and remember the importance of such programs when we speak to others about our experience in anatomy.
      In fact, I feel that the people on the receiving end of the donated body program greatly emphasize dignified and reverent treatment of the donors. During my visit to the Medical College of Georgia (my first medical school interview), I stayed with a second-year student, Lisa Batten, who guided me around the school about 11:30 one evening. One of the places Lisa took me was the anatomy lab. This was my first exposure to whole cadavers up-close and personal. Many first-year students were garbed in white coats and latex gloves (most wore multiple pairs to barricade their hands against the penetrating preservative fumes) with scalpels in hand, diligently dissecting and identifying the cranial nerves. Lisa introduced me to a couple of students across the room. I said, “Hi,” and then curiosity drew my eyes down to the table between them. There, lying on its stomach but nevertheless staring at me, was the cadaver. After death the bodily fluids, which normally keep the tendons supple and elastic, had been removed, or they had inadvertently dried up; this lack of bodily fluids caused the cadaver’s neck tendons to constrict and draw its head back so our “gazes” met. I suddenly felt the impulse to giggle slightly because I could have sworn that those eyes and that face belonged to the Elm Street tormentor—Freddy Kreuger. Of course, I was mistaken. I eventually realized that my immediate response of making the situation comical surfaced as a result of my ignorance about how to most appropriately deal with the direct post-mortem interaction. As we left the lab, Lisa explained to me that along with learning the names of nerves, blood vessels, and muscles, each student was required to respect the “study aids.” This respect included treating the physical bodies with the dignity that their donors would have desired. She also told me that the school had a traditional memorial service that served to commemorate and thank those who had donated their bodies to the medical school’s program.
      I’ve often wondered whether or not I had the guts to join the ranks of those who unselfishly donate their physical bodies to science either for educational or medical purposes. At first, I thought I did. Fall quarter of my freshman year, I went to the DMV to get my driver’s license and, in addition, I received an accompanying pink organ-donor card. The actual effort needed to peel off the piece of plastic protecting the self-adhesive little pink dot bearing the word “DONOR” was not in itself great. However, once the pink dot was in place on my license, I began receiving a myriad of questions and comments from anyone and everyone who noticed my dot. Some of the comments were warnings about the indecent and obscene acts that my body would undoubtedly be subject to once I was no longer able to object. And, it was professed to me, as if the speaker had been informed by a higher being, that no matter what parts I designated for use after my death, my requests would be ignored; once I was dead, “science” would step in and do with my body what it wished.
      It seemed that the vast majority of people who commented on my donor dot believed such a donation could only lead to one traumatic human violation or another. However, these thoughts had never entered my mind when I first decided to donate my organs after my death. Instead, I thought of those people still holding current membership cards to the living world who could enjoy their lives a little more by making use of some tissue I would no longer be needing. Unfortunately, however, I let the popular opinion of those who knew no more than I affect me so much that I began to question my decision. Allowing the pink dot to remain on my license (a task which requires no energy) became tremendously difficult. The bright pink of my donor dot standing out blatantly against the white background of my driver’s license acted like flypaper for so many negative verbal images that I eventually peeled off the little piece of printed paper and wiped away the remaining glue.
      At the time of the dot’s removal, I had no more experience with donor programs than did any of my storytellers. However, this year, I have gotten much better acquainted with such programs through my anatomy class and visiting medical schools across the country. I realize that some of the horrific stories may actually have some truth to them, but I also have learned a great deal about who and what actually goes on behind those closed doors. In fact, I’ve learned so much that the little pink sticker is standing out against the white background of my driver’s license once again.