Body of Work
Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab
by Christine Montross
Mary Roach for the NY Times Book Review says: “The author dissects her own emotions as deftly as she does the organs and ligaments of the cadaver, her pen as revelatory as her scalpel…”
I have to agree. This memoir by Christine Montross covering her first years in medical school, particularly the time spent in the lab dissecting a human cadaver, who she named Eve, is both fascinating and illuminating.
When I first picked up this book in my hand, engrossed by the cover photo, I thought twice about putting it back on the bookshelf. I was a bit afraid to read it to be honest. But then I thought: What exactly are you afraid of? A description of the insides of a dead body? Of your own? Then I wanted…no, I needed to read this book.
Not only did I learn, step by step, slice by delicate slice about human anatomy and its miraculous workings, but Montross swept me into medical history with captivating stories of the first anatomy “labs”, of stolen bodies, rotting and decaying before the hands of medicine’s historic predecessors, of the need to learn, the desire to save lives, or just to help one die with dignity. She also presents a gripping look at the too often callousness she encountered from veteran doctors who’d already developed the ability to look at people–patients–as just problems to solve and a pile of paperwork to do in a regular work day.
But mainly, Montross’s tenderness shines throughout the text. She studied poetry before she wrote this book and her literary ability shines in this autobiography. There were many points in which I laughed, and just as many in which I forced tears away including a recount of her caring for a comatose patient whose infected bandages sickened her until she found drawings from this patient’s two children taped to the rails of his bed where he could see them should he awaken…and another poignant time, in the very last chapter, when she alone in the lab says good-bye to the beautiful corpse she and her classmates dissected:
“My hand comes to rest in hers. I feel her vessels beneath my fingers, her tendons and bones.
Great teacher, I give you flowers. I carry your body to the funeral pyre. When you burn, may every space in you that I have named flame and burst into light.”