Favorite Excerpts from “Body of Work” – Part 1

BOOK REVIEW  BODY OF WORKI recently just finished book one of my ambitious summer reading list, Body of Work, by Christine Montross. It is a memoir written about the first year of medical school and “meditations on mortality from the human anatomy lab.” She specifically reflects on the entire process that all doctors must complete that is dissecting a human body, and how that necessary, fascinating, and obviously difficult process affects one emotionally, mentally, and physically. She also is a former poet and English teacher, so it’s actually a beautifully written book and not at all dense scientific journal style.

As a recent student of gross anatomy (in undergrad at least) and future lab assistant for that same class next year I knew this book would be right up my alley. Granted, in college we only dissect cats, but it was so neat to know exactly every anatomical detail that the author writes about because it was so fresh on my mind. People are often surprised that dental students also take part in this task just like medical students. Also, as I’m considering a career in oral and maxillofacial surgery that might lead me to completing an M.D. degree including different surgical rotations as well, I’m deeply intrigued by how anatomy and first learning through dissection is the absolute foundation to studying surgery.

Seriously, any and all future doctors out there need to read this book because it brings to light a lot of things that most people shy away from actually talking about. Christine discusses the history of cadaveric dissection, the fine balance between extreme detachment and engaging compassion required of physicians, the ethical questions of how students go about their first clinical experiences, and how other cultures of the world view dissection in much different ways. Here’s part one of some of the quotable passages that really resonated with me. Don’t worry, I tried to leave out some of the explicit and graphic imagery for any non-medical type readers, but the way she writes about anatomy makes it sound more like fine literature or art.

I have learned that the body and mind are not as easily separable as I had once imagined and that the treatment of one nearly always demands an understanding of the other.

My medical training thus far has put me in positions of both omnipotence and powerlessness, has revealed stark clarity and confounding darkness, has made me a vehicle of hope one day and of despair the next.

Of everything beside me, the teeth are what make the body seem the most real. 

The most alarming moments of anatomy are not the bizarre, the unknown. They are the familiar. 

The hands, feet, and heads are parts of the body that are instilled with character.

The emergence of the muscles is an introduction to the promise of discovery, of clarity beneath disorder. 

One of the strangest things about dissecting a human body is the difference between a human body and a human being – in some ways readily identifiable and in others barely perceptible. 

In order to dissect, we detach from what we are doing, and that detachment is easier to accomplish in a crowd.

You come to medical school like anyone else and then within the first week three things happen that differentiate you from everyone else you know. You touch and cut dead bodies. You are able to ask private and socially inappropriate questions of people, and they answer you. And you can suddenly walk into a hospital room, ask someone to take off his clothes, and he will do it.

With only a few days of medical school knowledge, I am suddenly fielding phone calls about hysterectomy options and back pain and ear infections. Unless any of my loved ones has a pressing question about how to find their angle of Louis or how to histologically differentiate the upper and lower layers of the skin, I’m of no help whatsoever.

Medicine relies upon a balance that is hushed and ill-defined.

The distribution of responsibility – often heavily weighted toward trainees – is rarely made overtly clear to patients, for the precise reason that so few would agree to that arrangement if it was.

All surgical procedures seem barbaric to an extent. I quickly would become able to accept even the most horrible-appearing surgical procedure once I could rationalize that the procedure was, in the long run, beneficial.

There will be more to come from the second part of the book soon.

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