I am not very sentimental when it comes to bodies, even my own. A dead body is just an empty vessel for me, easy to disregard before it’s even cool. Because I have a disease, it is unlikely that my organs would be very useful to anyone after my death, and because of that, I’m open to donating my body to science instead, if Sean felt comfortable with that. It’s not for everyone and that’s okay. But I’m curious about this stuff, and not overly squeamish, so one of my favourite books (on the topic, and just generally in the world) is Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. Roach is as fascinated by this stuff as I am, and she’s got a wicked streak of dark humour that’s particularly evident in her footnotes.
The First Patient is a thorough documentary about medical students in their anatomy class, wherein they dissect a human cadaver for the first time. We get to know a handful of students – who they are, how they got here, what inspired them. We get appreciate their differing cultural and religious backgrounds, and how that influences how they view science, medicine, human remains, life beyond death. Curiouser still, we get to know the cadavers in some way. Their human identities remain anonymous but their bodies become a tree of learning, a gift to the thousands of patients each of these future doctors will one day encounter.
Human dissection is no picnic, and years ago there was this sense, a coping mechanism perhaps, that medical students treated their cadavers cavalierly – adorning them with silly costumes, or leaving body parts behind in someone’s locker, as a prank. Today there is a better understanding of the emotional toll that this endeavour will take, even on students training to be doctors. There is dignity, bordering on reverence, for those who have made a donation of their bodies. There is a thoughtfulness that will move you, and gratitude that may influence you to consider your own donation.
For those of us with strong stomachs, The First Patient gives us a front-row seat to the dissection, without the smell. The Mayo Clinic School of Medicine opened its lab’s doors to filmmaker Chip Duncan, and he found the soul of medicine in the budding hearts and minds of first year students.
I don’t believe in heaven or hell but I do believe that this is life after death.