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(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Body of Work" - Christine Montross: Before Christine Montross decided to become a psychiatrist, she was a poet, university writing instructor and high school English teacher. So she has a way with words.
Montross brought that talent to one of the most traumatic parts of medical training - anatomy, or the dissection of the human body.
In a necessary, but terrifying part of medical school, students must dissect a human body, slowly stripping away the skin, flesh, nerves and muscles that make up that body. As Montross and her classmates remove the layers of a body they dub "Eve," she turns her thoughts not only to the elements that form a body, but to mortality, humanity and the mystic substance that makes a body human when it animates it.
"The human body harbors mysteries that are not solved by textbooks or studying, and as I have been confronted with them, I have found myself amazed, humbled and unnerved," Montross writes.
Arriving at medical school, one of the first tasks Montross faces is to "pick up bone boxes."
The box is her, and our, introduction to the mysteries and beauty of the human body. Inside, she finds a skull - "at once eerie and beautiful." In fact, much of what happens on the table under the powerful lights in the lab where the bodies serve up there mysteries to students, could bear that description.
Despite her initial fear, Montross finds herself drawn to the elderly woman who willingly gave her corpse to the medical school.
She speculates on Eve's life, ideas fueled by observations of the body she is slowly disassembling: fingernails painted with lavender nail polish; forearms covered with sunspots.
But what she notices more that anything is the absence of a person in the body. Death, she notes, completely removes the person from the body. The personality that would gaily daub lavender polish on her nails, is entirely lost to those in the lab exploring the most intimate parts of her body.
Mixed into Montross' ruminations on the human body and the nature of life, is a fascinating study of the history of the dissection of bodies by medical students. It includes the murky process by which bodies for dissection were obtained over the years. Grave robbing was the main way for a time. Although the bodies of executed prisoners - especially prized not only because they were fresh, but because they were in good health before their execution, was for years a main source of cadavers.
At the end of her year of studying Eve and the human body, Montross pays homage to the elderly woman who, by donating her body for study, has opened those mysteries to her. And she pays homage to the woman whose final unselfish act has provided her with such opportunity.
After her final exam in anatomy, Montross returns to the lab and seeks out Eve's body.
"I touch her brain, resting in the upturned dome of her skull. I touch the bare bone of her face, her shoulder, her pelvis, her leg. My hand comes to rest in hers. I feel her vessels beneath my fingers, her tendons and bones."
Eve, she acknowledges, has taught her much more than the way a human body is put together.
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