Medical student pens letter to the loved ones of cadavers

It is an extraordinary person who donates their body to science, writes Western medical student Caroline Esmonde-White. To work with a real human body is a truly unique experience for which I am so grateful.

Western medical student reflects on what it means to have access to a human body to learn anatomy

Caroline Esmonde-White is a second year medical student at Western University in London. (Submitted by: Caroline Esmonde-White)

This column was written by Western University Medical Student Caroline Esmonde-White for a memorial service thanking the families of body donors to the school. The memorial service did not happen because of COVID-19 but she says the sentiment remains strong, especially during a pandemic when scientific discovery is so important. 

When I walked into my first anatomy lab of first-year medical school, I had never seen a dead human body before. I had also never studied anatomy.

I walked toward the metal door with trepidation, unsure whether I would be one of the fainters. In the air hung a sense of solemnity and the fumes of formaldehyde.

My concern that I would be inept at anatomy paled in comparison to the knowledge that we were about to work with bodies that had previously housed life, emotions, and experiences. When we began our work and uncovered the bodies, it was shocking.

A real human had donated their body to my group – for my education. The imposter syndrome that runs rampant at that stage of training made me feel inadequate to have been bestowed such a gift. 

We all focused on the task at hand. We held a list of instructions and structures to identify – organs, arteries, nerves, muscles. We always say that everyone is unique, but I never thought much of this cliché until faced with a real anatomic variation.

Everyone's blood vessels run slightly different; their organs a unique size and shape. You can't help but wonder what else made the person in front of you unique: their laugh, their hobbies, their life story. This, I will never know, which makes me that much more curious about the person laid out before me.

To the people who were privy to this knowledge, who shared laughs and love, who knew how they spent their last days, and why they cared to educate someone like me posthumously: I cannot express my gratitude enough. This contribution of words seems inadequate compared to what I have been given. 

There is something so real about the experience that could never be replaced by textbooks.- Caroline Esmonde-White

I want you to know that this donation made a difference. I won't speak for my peers, although I probably could. I will carry this knowledge forever in my career, but also in the way that I view and respect the human body.

The indescribable complexity of the physical body that we inhabit is profoundly humbling, and I would never have been able to appreciate this fully without the opportunity given to me by your loved one. There is something so real about the experience that could never be replaced by textbooks.

When I am in the anatomy lab, my brain seems to work on overdrive learning all the information it can soak up because I know that I won't be able to return to this moment. I know that, eventually, this knowledge may save a life.

While I have become increasingly desensitized to the shock of the anatomy labs, I will never forget that first experience. To work with a real human body is a truly unique experience for which I am so grateful.

It is an extraordinary person who donates their body to science. It is a way of passing on wisdom long after their time on earth has expired. I am one of the people who can reassure you, the families and friends, that their wisdom has been received.    

  • This column is an opinion piece. For more information about contributing, please read our FAQ.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.