“You can come closer,” the pathologist said, gesturing with his head to the dead body lying on the table in front of me while he gripped the bone-saw tightly.
I was in an autopsy, one of the many procedures I signed up to shadow in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the medical field. I’ve always been determined to be a doctor, an aspiration that stems from my desire to make a difference. In my 10th grade American Literature class we read a poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which T.S. Eliot writes of a protagonist who wonders if he should dare to “disturb the universe.” I love this phrase; I think it’s such a beautiful way to say “change the world.” For a long time, I thought that to disturb the universe — to transform the world — we would have to somehow initiate a great change: eradicate a disease or create the next sustainable source of energy. I believed that it was only after I became a doctor that I would have my opportunity to disturb the universe.
We, as pre-med students, are told to shadow many different health care professionals. This makes sense: It exposes us to the industry and allows us to make educated decisions about the careers we plan to pursue. So, the Spring break of my sophomore year of college was spent shadowing as many doctors as I could. That was how I found myself in the morgue of a hospital at 7 a.m. on a cold March morning, being told to step closer to the body.
Autopsies are incredibly methodical procedures. The pathologist starts by examining the patient, cataloguing tattoos and scars, before extracting samples of bodily fluid to be tested in the lab. The first part of the body to be opened — at least in the autopsies I shadowed — is the chest. The doctor observes the chest cavity, noting down the position and state of the organs inside, before taking out the heart and a lung. He measures and weighs the organs before slicing a piece from each and placing the rest back into the body. A pathologist never takes a whole organ from the patient if they can help it because many people believe that they need all their organs to transition to the afterlife. After the chest, he moves on to the pelvic area and then the head, carefully measuring, categorizing, cutting and replacing all the organs as he moves through the body.
As I stood there, watching this doctor cut into someone else’s body, I was reminded of how easy it is to die.
At 20 years old, I sometimes forget that we, as human beings, are not invincible. We’re college students; staying up until 5 a.m. studying, and then waking up in time for our 8 a.m. lectures. We survive on meals of mac and cheese and frozen waffles. We walk for 20 minutes in blizzard conditions to get to that one class that we can’t miss, lest we lose out on those precious attendance points. We spend nights in beds that aren’t ours and indulge in drinks we probably shouldn’t drink. We do things that might not be good for us but we survive it all. We even thrive. It’s easy to take that for granted sometimes, that feeling that no matter what we do we’ll be OK.
It was jarring to see proof of the fragility of life laying right in front of me.
That morning, witnessing an autopsy, I was struck by both the vulnerability and strength of human beings. I was able to hold a human heart that had been beating just a few hours earlier. The brain that created the personality and held the memories of a real person was resting in my hands. It was humbling to be able to touch the parts of a person that made them who they were, and it was inspiring to see the strength and respect with which the doctor performed the procedure. He was an artist, cutting and sewing in exact lines. He was a detective, studying the clues within his patients. He was a reader, learning the stories their bodies told even after they were gone.
In the basement of that hospital, standing in a cold, windowless room where the dead far outnumbered the living, I discovered what it really meant to disturb the universe. Changing the world doesn’t require a grand gesture. The patients who were lying in front of me had changed the world. Their hearts had once beat, their minds had once thought and, even after they were gone, their bodies were communicating their stories to us. They had lived, and, in doing so, regardless of how small of an effect it may have been, they had made their mark; they changed their world simply by existing in it. So sitting here, in this warm library with lots of windows surrounded by other students who are breathing and thinking and feeling, I am reminded of the lesson I learned in the morgue — that we are alive and we are disturbing the universe.