Cadaver Lab

Cadaver Lab

Nowhere but in cadaver lab is it acceptable
Or legal
to cut apart human bodies, touch and handle their organs, and have conversation over them.

Nowhere but in cadaver lab
Have I felt
Uneasy about sharing a space with the bodies of the dead.

Nowhere but cadaver lab
Have I been scared to go alone
Or worried I’m doing wrong
Or afraid of disrespecting
a body lived in, loved, and now dead.


A bubbly, short second-year student leads my group of 4 to a table, where she happily explains the rules.
“You have to keep the body wet with wetting solution and paper towels!”
What a concept.
“And throw excess tissue in the tissue buckets,”
Body tissue.

Needless to say,
I am apprehensive.
Dead bodies should be buried, safe and sound, in the ground.

That’s what I think as I walk out on orientation day.


Oh my goodness.
We have to cut open this man’s chest.

He is small, pale, and frail,
He died at 87 years old.

“Let’s call him Greg,” says Catherine.
“Or any name… I don’t mind…” she backtracks.

“Well, who’ll make the first cut?”


“I’ll do it,” says Umer.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll go next.”
I’d better face my fears.

Umer makes his cut.

We peel back the donor’s skin,
And I’m shocked.

Shocked by the textures
Of the fascia
And muscles.

I’ve never seen anything
More beautiful
Than this.

The books have lied.
They never mentioned
That external intercostal muscles
Shimmer in the light.

Nor the marvelous way nerves, arteries, and veins
Run like rivers
Along the mountains and valleys
Of our posterior chest wall

“Time is up! Group B is here. Clean up your stations and wet down the bodies.”

I can’t believe it.
I have to leave?

But nowhere but in cadaver lab
Is it acceptable
Or legal
To learn the human body in this way!

Needless to say,
Cadaver lab becomes
My new favorite place.

Because nowhere but in cadaver lab
Do I learn as quickly
What a heart feels like sitting in my hand
Or how a lung expands
Like a sponge filled with air

We’re made of carbon?
Like clay and dust?
Then what keeps me alive?
What makes my mind awake and free?

Tell me, is there anywhere but cadaver lab
Where the living and the dead
Interact through careful touch?
And spur intelligent conversation?
Where we, the living, can engage with those who’ve passed, in a way that is “normal,” and not sad?

I still believe a body should rest in the ground.
But some people
Choose to let their bodies
Take a longer route.

They gift us with knowledge
Of anatomy
And of mortality
And of ourselves.

Nowhere but in cadaver lab
Have I experienced anything
Like that.

What is greater?

What is greater?

It’s mid-November, and as the days shorten, the prayer times squeeze closer together. My mind is filled with thoughts about school and people and responsibilities. In between trying to learn antifungal medications and vaccine types, I find myself rushing to complete prayers on time. Today, I realized I only had eight minutes until Asr’s prayer time ended, so I dashed out of the library and down the hospital hallways to the hospital chapel. The chapel sits outside a busy waiting area full of anxious friends and relatives of patients undergoing surgery. Even when I’m in a rush, the stressful expressions of those in the waiting area wash over me. I wonder how they’re doing. I hope they’re alright.

I sped into the chapel and kicked off my shoes, muttering the iqama under my breath and trying to compose myself. I completed Asr and sat on the ground in reflection. But then, a sound made me jump. The clock in the corner of the prayer nook had begun to play the adhan. I almost hoped it would stop after the first loud “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,” like many phone apps do. My phone doesn’t even play the adhan aloud. It plays a series of beeps inconspicuous enough to sound like a message or typical phone notification. I set it that way, so that it isn’t disruptive… and frankly, so that people don’t know what it is.

But this clock continued to play the adhan – the entire adhan. Slowly, surely, and loudly, the melodious voice of the mueddhin rang aloud. I sat on the red and green prayer rug, my legs folded beneath me, listening to the call to prayer ring loud against the background noise of the bustling hospital and of families talking to each other in the surgical waiting area. It dawned upon me how long it had been since I had listened to the entire adhan, recited aloud with patience and pauses and passion. This was a familiar recording, the classic “Madinah” adhan that I used to hear daily from a small, rectangular black clock in my family’s kitchen. Even then, I didn’t usually listen to the whole thing. When I attend local Friday prayers, the adhan is called, but it is rushed. The mueddhin hastily utters the phrases so that we can all pray and get back to work, get back to school, and get back to the patients in the hospital – whether we are treating them or waiting on a loved one in surgery. It is the middle of the workday, after all.

But the pre-recorded adhan had no sense of time. It had no sense of the mountain of studies I had to complete nor the anxieties of the patients and their families in the surgical waiting area outside. It just said, “Allahu akbar:” “God is greater.” And indeed, God is greater than time, greater than hastiness, and greater than personal anxieties, school stresses and even serious illness. God is greater.

So I sat on the green and red rug and listened to the entire adhan, my back towards the busy hospital and the medical school. And when it finally ended, I slowly stood up and began my next prayer. “Allahu akbar.”