Grief in the Cadaver Lab

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Grief in the Cadaver Lab By Peter Park

It was the first day of anatomy lab and I was dreadful. You see, I’m the type of person who gets
nauseous when they see blood in TV shows. So you can imagine how nervous I was: walking
through the double doors, I feel the freezing cold temperatures to see the basement lined with
metallic tables with baby blue body bags..

I get nauseous.
I walk over to my cadaver bag and I see the sign it says “76-year-old female. Stroke”. I hadn’t
thought much about it at the time, and went ahead to unzip the bag.


The smell first hits you: a welcoming reminder to never eat breakfast before cadaver lab. As I
slowly approach, I observe my cadaver in full display. Her toes squeezed against her sole as if
she wore heels at a club. Her knees are bent inwards in a way that feels unsteady. The tips for
fingers are stained yellow.

A smoker, maybe?

“Well, let’s get started” my lab partner says without a beat.

Masked, gloved, goggled, I grab a scalpel my right hand and we begin with the abdominal
cavity. It was my first time holding a scalpel and I was both amazed and disturbed at how easily
the skin cut underneath the blade. Luckily, I didn’t throw up that first day and slowly but surely,
each day got easier. I began to feel lighter and my nausea subsided. And right as I was feeling a
tinge of confidence,

That’s when I got the call.

It was in the middle of the night. I was driving back home after a long day in the lab. I slowed
down to a yellow light by the intersection next to my apartment. And I get a call from my dad,
which is weird because he usually texts me before he calls. It’s also 11 o’ clock at night.
Something feels off. I pick up. “Hello?” A pause. Then he speaks,

“할아버지가 돌아가셨다”

which translates to “grandfather is dead.” And I watch as the intersection light turns from red to
green. But, I can’t move my foot to the gas pedal.

My mind flashbacks to my childhood summers in Korea. I am 12-years-old. When I arrive, my
grandfather would greet me with open arms, showing off all his tan muscles from working from
his vineyard. Each day, he would wake me and my older brother up at dawn and hike up a huge
mountain where his vineyard would be dripping from the morning dew. We would use a bucket
to carry the grapes and pluck off all of the caterpillars from the vines. After working full days in
the hot, humid sun in Korea, we would come home, scrub our feet til they were red, and stomp
on grapes all night. When I complained, my grandfather would laugh with glee and called me,

“Stubborn kid”

Before he slapped my back to keep working. I distinctly remember my middle school teacher
asking if I was excited for summer and I replied, “No, because I will be forced child labor”. That
was a fun PTA meeting.

The last time I saw my grandfather was the summer before medical school. Since those
summers, he developed Alzheimer’s disease and began to decline in his cognition and memory.
The strong man that I remember, the one with tan muscular arms, was wheeled out in a
wheelchair by a nurse. He looked so small and pale. His arms atrophied to reveal his bones.
And his face was sunken into his chest.

My father is the first to greet him and asks,

“Dad, do you remember us? The whole family is here. It’s me, your son. Do you remember?”


Even though this isn’t their first interaction since the diagnosis, my dad still reacts the same. His
nose flares. His lips tremble. His face flushes. He tries again. Only this time, he kneels down.
His best suit.

“Dad, it’s me, your son. Can you remember? Can you remember anyone?”

My grandfather looks up to the sound of his voice but does not recognize his face. Then he
turns his head towards the rest of us and suddenly makes eye contact with me. He raises his
trembling finger to point at me and says,

“Stubborn kid”

And I swear, I could hear the bones of everyone’s neck turning back to look at me. And
suddenly, I felt this overwhelming sense of burden. It felt like the years of forgetfulness,
dementia, and failure to recognize someone in the family. Despite having more memories with
everyone else, he remembered me. He recognized me, even though he knew me least.

I remember that night; no one spoke to me. My brother and I shared a bunk bed and I heard him
whisper below me,

“You should feel lucky”

This was not luck. This was isolation or guilt. Some sort of twisted survivor’s guilt like I had
survived my grandfather’s collective years of memory. I felt guilty that I was recognized.

A car honks behind me. And I’m brought back to the present. The light is yellow and I speed
past, missing the turn for my apartment. I pull over to the side of the road and I start crying. My
dad is on the other end of the phone call talking about logistics. He’s asking me to fly back home
to California so that I could take care of my younger sister while he and my mom fly back to
Korea for the funeral.

At the time, COVID-19 was a pandemic and the Korean government had very strict travel
restrictions limited to immediate family members on business for funerals and weddings.
Grandchildren were excluded.

I flew back for a week and a half. Mostly, doing chores. And before I know it, I am back in the
cadaver lab. The basement is still freezer cold. The body bags still baby blue. The cadaver is
still. But this time feels different. The thoughts are endless.

I should be in Korea. I should be with my family. I should be by the funeral at my grandfather’s side.

Instead, I’m here with a body of a person I never knew. I should be-

I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s my lab partner with a concerned look on his face. “You good?”

I’m not sure about the correct way to grieve, but I know this wasn’t it. I start to lose weight, lose
sleep. I become a vessel of insomnia, stress, and anxiety.

I remember one day we were assigned to dissect parts of the neck, and we reach the Common
Carotid artery. I am pulling away fascia with a few fibers stuck between my scalpel. I began to
pull and pull until I give too much, and I slice the artery in two. I feel a mixture of old blood and
formaldehyde pulsating between my gloved fingertips. It feels warm.

For some reason, I am back in the vineyard. I close my eyes. I am 12-years-old again. I am
looking down, squeezing a grape between my fingertips. It feels warm. When I open my eyes,
there’s blood.

I get nauseous.

I run to the bathroom and I throw up. I can’t do this anymore. Later that day, I receive a text from
my dad. No words or warning. Just a screenshot of a document titled, “Autopsy report”. I
assume he wants me to translate medical jargon like “abrasion”. I scan down to a line that reads
Probable cause of death:


It sounded familiar. The first day. My cadaver. Her sign read, “76-year-old female. Stroke” That
means they died of the same thing. There’s a connection here. There’s got to be some sort of
meaning behind this madness. I know I couldn’t go to my grandfather’s funeral, but perhaps
there’s a chance he met my cadaver in the afterlife. Knowing I wasn’t going to be there, maybe
he asked her, “Hey, you’re going to see my grandson. Leave him a message for me.” And
through the cadaver’s body, I was supposed to discover this hidden message.

And so I was excited like never before to return to the cadaver lab. I greet my cadaver and the
first thing I say is “Hello Mrs. Doppelganger” because in some sense, she was my grandfather’s
deathly doppelganger who died of the same pathology.

That day, we’re instructed to flip her over to expose her back. I tell the team to be at each side
and I will rotate the head. We get into position and on the count of three, we flip her.

1, 2, 3!

In one sweeping motion, she falls onto the table with a thud, and everyone winces back from
splashing formaldehyde, except for me. I am stuck, captivated by her blue butterfly tattoo.
Those butterflies, I saw them in the vineyard. I feel warm.

I close my eyes. Those butterflies are flying past me. I have garden sheers in my hands and I
am following my grandfather in his footsteps. He points to each branch, telling me to cut them
off. After a while, I start to get frustrated. I say, “Grandpa, why are we cutting off these healthy
branches. Don’t they make good grapes?”

He smiles and laughs at my child-like innocence. He says,

“Yes. And now their job is done. They’ve made these sweet grapes.”

I watch as he plucks a grape off and tosses it in the air. For a moment, the grape eclipses the
sun before falling into his mouth. I remember now.

The taste of sweet memories.

Peter Park is a 4th year medical student at TCU School of Medicine. He is a Delegate for the AMA. In his spare time he enjoys writing narrative medicine, hiking and climbing.

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September 5, 2023 11:44 pm

This was absolutely beautiful.

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