Monday, March 26, 2007

Alienating Autopsy

Daughter Number 2 has lately been interested in medicine in general and the forensic sciences in particular; she’d like to have “doctor” somehow attached to her name, but doesn’t want the nuisance of all those darn malpractice suits, which I think is very farsighted and quite commendable. She thinks the best route to doctorhood is to learn to perform autopsies — that way, if your knife slips, it’s no big deal, the patient’s dead anyway. Makes sense to me.

She just finished a book called Tales from the Morgue, and has started another one called Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers. She watches Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs religiously (because, after all, those shows do portray the medical world as it really is, and she gets valuable insight from them). The girl is firmly on track.

Last week DN2 found an actual demonstration video of an autopsy on You Tube. I won’t bother provide you with the link, but it’s easy enough to find. If you do, beware: it is unsparingly graphic. She invited me to watch it with her, which I did, and later, after having retired to bed for the night, I found myself replaying the images of it over and over in my head until about 2 AM.

The closest I had ever come to witnessing an autopsy before was the “alien autopsy” hoax several years ago, a clever bit of stagecraft where “doctors” delicately cut slices into a latex alien. Silly me, I thought all autopsies went that way, with a snip-snip here and a snip-snip there, followed by a prissy little peek inside.

It turns out autopsy doctors are butchers, and have less reverence for a human corpse than your dad did for the Thanksgiving turkey. The video shows a woman somewhere in her twenties stretched naked on her back on a table. Flimsy pieces of linen cover her crotch and face. For a corpse, she looks pretty good: she obviously worked out, has nice abs, and even shows bikini tan lines. Were it not for the fact she’s dead, I suppose you could pronounce her a healthy specimen. Doctor A deftly cuts a V shape into her chest going from shoulder to shoulder with the point between her breasts (keeping the neck in good shape for the wake), and then a straight line from the bottom of the V down to her crotch. Slashing at fat and muscle with his sharp knife, he quickly peels the woman’s torso and midsection apart like skinning an animal, exposing everything within. A mild stir occurs among the staff when it’s discovered the woman has breast implants; somehow they missed the little scars below her breasts that should have tipped them off. Doctor B extracts one and holds it up to the camera. A surprise in every pack.

I will end my description here, except to mention that as they ran roughshod through her innards and unceremoniously cut out all those vital organs which, until the day before yesterday, thousands of dollars and scores of medical personnel would have been dedicated to saving so long as life animated that poor young woman’s body, I felt like shouting, “Watch it!,” or, “Be careful with that!,” or, “That’s a heart, for Christ’s sake!,” or, “She needs those lungs to breathe! Put them back in and sew them up right!”

Call me squeamish, but the sight of a deceased human body, an empty vessel with all the lights turned out, is still disquieting to me. I made it a point not to go to Body Worlds at the Museum of Science when it came here, and would never dream of watching any of those Faces of Death videos. I don’t care much for reminders of my own mortality, even though death fascinates me just as much as the next guy. I guess I’m in a constant state of denial. I know someday I will end this earthly existence, but I refuse to allow it to sink in, and who knows what will happen afterward anyway? Shakespeare calls it the undiscovered country. Do we really have souls? Is there an afterlife? Or is it as the TIME Magazine article on consciousness suggests, that we are just tissue and chemical and nothing more, mere robots reacting to stimuli, no consciousness, no true self, and when we stop, we really and truly stop?

Those autopsy doctors know the cadaver they carve up is like a doorpost or a discarded tire or last week’s losing lottery ticket decomposing in a mud puddle. When you die, your body is a stone, a plastic fruit, an old chair, a rusting lawn mower that won’t run anymore. My delicacy of feeling is a joke. When life leaves, what remains behind is a husk, a relic, nothing more. They know all of this.

Here’s something about me I’ll share: I have always had trouble with the ephemeral nature of things. I have always wanted things to stay put where they are, and am constantly dismayed when they just won’t. When I was very small, a friend of my parents’ came to visit us one day and gave me a little toy truck. I thanked him and, for a moment, treasured the gift. Then it occurred to me how easy it was for him to give up this splendid, brightly-colored piece of molded plastic, like it was nothing at all — the answer, of course, was that he was a grown-up, and grown-ups don’t go for little toy trucks. It took no great mental leap to realize that I, too, would someday be a grown-up, and find such things as toy trucks of no importance or amusement. Sobered by the thought, the toy instantly lost all value.

Nothing can be more ephemeral than life. By its very definition, life is not lasting. We talk about shelf lives, or what is the life expectancy of this or that. We are slaves to change and entropy. You’re born, you live, you die. Da da-da da-dum. Some philosophers believe the perfect life is to never have lived at all, and, failing that, it is better to die young. After all, Schopenhauer informs us that life is nothing but struggle and ennui anyway; our only option is to make the best of it, and our only purpose is to propagate the species and not miss our cue to exit the stage when the time comes.

Mama mia.

Yes, life is short. Life is what you make of it. You only live once, you know, and when you do, you live and learn. That’s life, after all.

Someday I’ll die. Someday, maybe, I’ll be stretched out on the autopsy table, surrounded by Doctor A with his scalpel, Doctor B with his rib-cutter, and Doctor C with her electric saw. But I hope when Doctor A pulls my flesh apart, he’ll know he’s drawing aside the curtain to a great theatrical production where all the actors had toiled in unison for many years and played their parts well; the play being over, the actors are finally at rest. I hope when Doctor B extracts my heart, he’ll know it beat once, sedately in calm moments, as it did in countless hours of meditation and study and reflection, and rapidly in excitement, such as during the birth of my kids, or when events of great personal importance occurred. When Doctor C lifts my brain out of its case, I hope she realizes what epic tales of turmoil and love and revelation went on in there, the things it experienced, the dreams it dreamt, the thoughts it formed, expressed and unexpressed; lifeless now, it rests inertly in her hands like a tiny, sleeping infant.

At least, this is what I hope.


Blogger Kathleen said...

DN2 sounds like my YS. She's actually dissected a cadaver (at least once). I was pretty much done after the fetal pig in 9th grade.

While that woman is dead, I'll bet her family wouldn't be thrilled to find her autopsy on youtube, because although she's just tissue, et al to the doctors, she was someone's daughter, sister, cousin, friend, etc.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Flash said...

So, anybody ready for lunch?

I like your daughters thought out process behind this possible career choice. She has a good head on her shoulders.

I watched Faces of Death, out of Morbid Curiosity. Autopsies are disgusting for the same reason you mentioned. It's hard to see a shell of a person laying there, not trying to defend themselves from the butcher with the bone saw.

7:26 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

I don't really mind death, dead bodies, autopsies, or change. I mind stagnation more. I mean, I love routine, but I hate when things seem unchanged.

This is a weird topic, but now I'll have to youtube this video. Haha.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Shatterfist said...

Soem thoughts:

Be aware of death, but don't obssess over it like some gothic fruitcake. That way madness lies.

People will believe whatever they want. Scientists looking frantically to disprove religion will find whatever evidence they think they're looking for; and the religious community will refute it no matter what it is.

Belief in an afterlife doesn't make you crazy. Worste cast scenario, there is nothing beyond this life and it doesn't matter - because you're dead. Either way, a corpse is just an empty shell; so I guess surgeons can 'experiment' with it since there's no risk involved.

10:22 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

I would be interested in seeing an autopsy, but I don't like it when people are flippant about a corpse. Sure, the person doesn't know it, but it's still disrespectful.

I'm not very squeamish. I eat supper while watching Crossing Jordan and all the other "cut 'em up" TV shows. It's preparing me for reality. I'm an organ donor.

11:50 AM  
Blogger rennratt said...

I know what is ahead of me.

I am an organ donor, but medications for my illness have pretty much voided that out. I can't even donate blood anymore.

When I die, I want to be donated to a Body Farm for research - or sent to a Teaching College and used as a prank. And No, I'm not kidding.

6:48 PM  
Blogger SzélsőFa said...

Chances are you are going to see your OWN autopsy.
But you know what - you would not care much about your flesh, anymore.

Schopenhauer was wrong. But by this time already he knows it...

2:40 AM  
Blogger SzélsőFa said...

your wish was heard:
ornamental fowls are on their way in the forest.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I think you know about the Stephen King short story, about an autopsy performed on a man who was not really dead, but unable to stop it. You referred me to an old Joseph Cotton film of roughly the same subject. Eerie.

I remember meeting a man who loved toys when I was just a little boy. In today's world, I wouldn't be allowed into a strange man's apartment to check them out, but he was really an anomaly. I vowed never to lose interest in toys, and held on for a long time. I take my kids to any toy store we see and let them dream about what they find on the shelves, and occasionally of course, let them get one.

I could watch that youtube video, but it would have roughly the same effect on me. I need my illusions sometimes.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I take it back, I just found it and watched ten seconds before clicking away. It's too much.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Ben O. said...

All I can say is - thanks for ending your description when you did, brother.

Ben O.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Farrago said...

When I was in the Air Force we were shown a film about battlefield medicine in the Vietnam war. They showed brief snippets of field dressings being pulled away and showing the carnage that combat had wrought, and of other injuries. There was the clip of amputation surgery being done on a soldier's leg. The scary truth about surgery is that there is often little that is delicate about it. These doctors, pressed for time I'm sure, went at that leg as though a side of beef! We are misled by TV shows and by documentaries about pioneering brain surgeries to believe that all surgery requires absolute precision and the steadiest of hands. But surgeons are practiced professionals and will, quite literally, "cut through the crap" to get to the "meat" of the matter, and will slow down when the delicate touch is necessary.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Farrago said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:51 PM  
Blogger tiff said...

All delicacies aside, the one thing I brought out of this post are th e words. Once again, I got all caught up in the rhythm and sway of them and was able to forget the topic.

A brain as a tiny baby took my breath clean away.


Thank you.

6:31 PM  
Blogger magnetbabe said...

Awesome post, Schprock. I largely agree with everything you have to say here. But I also think doctors and morticians have the healthiest view of death out of everybody. Even if they can be a little rough sometimes.

I read Stiff and loved it. I also bought her next one, Spook but it's sitting on my nightstand at the bottom of a rather large pile. The last part of your post made me think of Driving Mr. Albert, which is also a good read. It's about the guy who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and then stole his brain. True story! You and/or DN2 might like it. I hope DN2 gets to be Dr. DN2 someday. She sounds amazing.

10:48 AM  
Blogger briliantdonkey said...

exceptional post to say the least. Very well done. Sounds like your daughter has at least thought it out quite a bit. I myself couldn't do it, but am glad there are people out there who can and do.


8:54 PM  
Blogger eda said...




1:17 AM  

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