The Metal Tables

Danny, First Year Medical StudentAt the end of the year, we hold a memorial ceremony, giving thanks to the friends of families of those who donated their bodies to the Anatomy Department at Loma Linda. Throughout the serene program, many students delivered moving testimonies of their experiences in the cadaver lab. The following is one example.


They were laid out on metal tables, sheathed in Glistening white vinyl
Bright under fluorescent lamps
But vague outlines and forms –
Figures undefined.

I was afraid, just a little.
For the unknown is scary.

In anatomy dissection atlases,
The veins are blue, the nerves are yellow, the arteries red.
The vessels are never tangled, the muscles large and robust, the proportions exact.
Precise little font and precise little lines label each part.
Bodies are perfect.
And Bodies are flat

Age 91 –
Occupation – teacher.
It’s ironic now that I think about it
A teacher, even after his passing.
But back then, they just were two lines on a mostly empty paper.

We unzipped the long vinyl bags.
Zip, zip.
The sounds of 17 jagged rows of plastic teeth giving way.
Carefully peeled back the cloth covering –
And there he was,
Lying there serenely.

I was not serene.
Everything looked the same
The nerves, the arteries, the veins.
Everything was in between and on top of, beneath, and intertwined.
A symphony of parts – the melody of which I could not detect –
A kaleidoscope whose colors I could see but pattern not discern.

We dissected – slowly –
Muttered –
Is this important? Am I cutting a nerve?
Is this a nerve? Maybe it’s an artery.
Everything was important.
Everything was interconnected.

But I was afraid, still.
For I was looking in the face of someone who ceased to breathe,
For whom the curtains of life had closed.

I hadn’t realized that through death, I was learning of life.
And that it was though death that life could be prolonged
Because some time, somewhere, there had been a man or woman –
Lying on a metal table –
Another teacher,
And another student.

They had met, and from the teacher the student learned how joints moved,
How the muscles flexed – how the knee bent.
And some time, some where,
This student had created the artificial knee that had bore my teacher’s weight,
Walked him from place to place –
Away from home and back again.

Some time, somewhere, there had been a man or woman –
Lying on a metal table,
Another teacher.
And another student.

And from the teacher the student learned the functions of the heart –
How it beat, how it pulsed –
And some time, some where,
This student had created the artificial valves
That had allowed my teacher’s heart to beat for 91 years.

I am afraid no longer –
Merely thankful –
For those eight months in which I learned 
of the complexity of life –
The beauty of the human body –
The generosity of human heart.

He was aged 91.
And he was my teacher.

– written by: Valecia Liew