Monday, January 12, 2009

Your body: opened up

This is the second post related to the book Final Exam. I forgot to mention in my last post that Dr. Pauline Chen has an excellent column in the Health "Doctor and Patient" section of the NY Times. Dr. Chen discusses a variety of issues related to medicine and patient care. In my opinion, she offers some interesting insights.

Like I mentioned in my last post, I find the topic of death fascinating. Not just for the physical aspects of what happens to you after death, but also how people perceive death. In the first chapter of the book, Dr. Chen begins her medical school journey. As with every medical student, the gross anatomy lab is required as well as dissecting a cadaver, a human being that once was. The main objective for the medical student is not only to learn human anatomy, but also to depersonalize themselves with a human being. After all, would they really be able to just cut someone open?

Many cadavers medical students use are from people who have donated their bodies for this purpose. Because some students have emotional difficulty with this particular lab and others develop poor bedside manners, it's one reason why more medical schools have implemented death and dying courses in their curriculum. Other schools also hold ceremonies for their cadavers, understanding the "gift" the individuals have given them.

The cadaver Dr. Chen had (and she goes into lengthy detail as to all the parts of the body which I won't get into here) was a woman who had end stage ovarian cancer. This was not evident until they found the masses in the cadaver's abdomen. For many of the students, Dr. Chen describes it as they were already looking at this as "voyeuristic art."

One of the last parts of the cadaver dissection is seeing the face which had been previously covered. Dr. Chen says:

"somehow I felt that seeing her face--her eyes, her lips, and her final expression--would confirm the life I had tried to re-create in my mind...The eyes, I hoped, would finally tell me the rest of her story. I would be able to look upon her as those who surrounded her during her life had."

Unfortunately, for Dr. Chen, this did not occur, because there were only empty eye sockets where the eyes should have been. The likely case was that her corneas had also been donated. The brain was also removed for a later time for dissection.

As I was reading this chapter, it made me think about my own body. Hypothetically, if I or anyone one of us were dead right now, how would others view our bodies? Would our bodies and eyes tell the tale of our eating disorders?

More than likely, for many of us who live in that "in between" life, it would be hard to tell that an eating disorder lived there or was once there.
I think the same would be true for someone who has recovered or is in recovery. Internally, I don't know how much our organs change unless there has already been extensive damage done. And even with that, if someone did not know the history of that cadaver, there could be a variety of hypothetical guesses and diagnoses.

Then, the question is would it matter? We all hear about the survivor stories of cancer, of some horrible medical illness, some awful trauma, sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, etc. People find all those to be important, to mean something, to realize they have fought and taken their lives back. Though people use the terminology "I survived anorexia" and such, it's still not seen as a really big accomplishment. I think it should not be discounted as it takes a lot of hard work. Certainly, this isn't the only accomplishment in one's life, but it does matter.

I guess in some ways I think it is kind of sad. I obviously cannot predict when I die, and I'm hopeful that I have recovered by that point. But sometimes, there is a hope that my body will leave some mark that I once did have an eating disorder but survived it. Knowing my body, all that will be left are my outer scars--the scars from my hand surgeries, scars from scratches (from dogs, not me), and a scar from what we think was a hot water burn when I was very young, at least that's what I told my parents. These are all external. The internal scars wouldn't be seen. They'd be invisible.

What I find ironic about this is that I go to lengths in hiding the eating disorder both in forms of past and present. But yet, there is part of me after death that wants someone to know--almost like a way of releasing a secret. But then again, maybe my life will be so different at that time, that it won't matter to me anymore. It'll just be another "did this, did that, and got the t-shirt" deal.

What are people's thoughts on this? If your body was opened right now, how would others view it? How would you want others to view it? Does surviving an eating disorder matter to you? Is there importance in leaving a mark of it behind?

*For the record, I have not decided yet whether I will donate my body, but if I do, I hope it is treated with the utmost respect as donating really is a beautiful gesture of generosity.


Kim said...

Great post! Like you, I'm very fascinated with death. I guess it gives me perspective to think about how I will be just a body, a shell, when I die... and all these years of the eating disorder will be meaningless. I don't think my anorexia would "show" (it never has in routine blood work!). If anything, my bones would be a little brittle. The thing is that life is so short, and the body really doesn't mean that much. It's a vessel for the stuff that does matter. I know eating disorders aren't really about the body; they're about the mind. Still, it's motivating to think, "Ok, I want to keep my vessel healthy so what's inside can be happy...until that final day." You really should read "Stiff." It's fascinating!

Tiptoe said...

Kim, I agree with you on the body and how it is a vessel for the things we do in life. And it is important to keep it healthy, because otherwise, you can't really fulfill the life you want.

Oh yes, I have read Stiff, as well as part of Bonk. Haven't read Spook yet. Mary Roach does have a very clever way of writing.

Anonymous said...

This is a really deep post tiptoe, and so relevant to how I am feeling now. I'm rapidly losing my Anorexic shell, and feel like I am still sick on the inside, but this is not reflected on my outside anymore. Eventually I hope this won't be important to me anymore, but at the moment it feels very strange and awkward.

Lola x

Tiptoe said...

Thanks Lola. It is quite a thinking post. I think everything you're feeling right now is quite understandable. It is my hope that the awkwardness will fade, and instead be feelings of comfortableness with oneself outside and inside.