by E. B. Fischadler
“And now, class, meet your cadaver!”
Professor Mason wasn’t always an exuberant sort, but he was amused every fall by the reaction of his students to their first encounter with a dead body. This wasn’t necessarily a first encounter for every student: some were EMTs before medical school; others were veterans.
Upon Professor Mason’s announcement, twenty sheets were whisked from twenty cadavers. This elicited several gasps, some mild obscenities, and one fit of giggling.
After a moment, Professor Mason said, “Good. No students flat on the floor. It’s rare, but I did have one student pass out on meeting his corpse. That student is now a resident in abdominal surgery at City Hospital.”
Victor Frenchstone had an unusual relation to corpses, not only because of his own origin, but also through his almost-wife. Now, for the first time in over a hundred years, he gazed upon the dead remains of a human being. The last time, Victor had watched as his creator labored to build him a mate and then destroy her. This time, Victor was one of four students who would dissect this body in order to learn how it was constructed.
Across the table, Marty Katz said, “Female, perhaps forty years old.”
“A mother, judging by the belly and breasts,” said Sharon, standing next to Victor.
“How did she die?” asked June, standing next to Marty.
Victor picked up the tag tied to the corpse’s big toe. “Myocardial Infarction.”
“Good,” said Marty. “We’ll get to see atherosclerosis when we dissect the coronary arteries.”
“Ah, you’ve reached a diagnosis with no evidence, young man.” The teaching assistant was looking over Marty’s shoulder. “It might have been due to a dysrhythmia, or incidental to another illness, or traumatic.”
“No apparent chest injury, ignoring this clumsy suturing. I presume that’s from the autopsy,” fired back Marty.
“No autopsy,” said the teaching assistant. “She died in surgery. You haven’t turned her over yet. Maybe there’s a hole in her back.”
“Help me flip her over, Victor... Victor?”
Victor Frenchstone stood transfixed. The instant Marty mentioned the sutures, he stared at the large diameter suture material, loosely tied, a far cry from the neat sutures he had received from several plastic surgeons over his life. Those neat sutures replaced crude sutures from so very long ago, placed there by a medical student as he stitched together a being who would ultimately attend medical school himself.
Victor snapped out of his reverie. “Sure, I’ll help.” And the giant student easily lifted the body, turned it over and gently laid it back on the table.
Marty said, “Nope. No trauma here.”
“Now you can rule out traumatic cardiac arrest,” said the teaching assistant.
As the assistant moved off to help other groups, Sharon said, “Should we start our examination at the front, head to toe, just as the notes say to do?”
So the cadaver was returned to a supine position and the students began their examination.
It was common for students to assign names to their cadavers. In some cases the names were whimsical, in others the cadavers were named for acquaintances or figures in popular culture. One cadaver, a 30-year old man with black hair and a thick moustache was named “Zappa” after the leader of the band “The Mothers of Invention.”
Marty said, “She looks just like my high school biology teacher.”
“Hope your teacher was more lively than this,” retorted Sharon.
“Do you know your teacher’s first name?” asked June.
“Jeanne,” answered Marty.
“That’s a good name,” said Sharon. “Jeanne it is.”
Over the next several weeks, Victor and his partners opened Jeanne’s chest, abdomen and, eventually, skull. They removed and dissected organs, weighing, measuring and further sectioning them to understand their inner structure. By the end of the semester, the students had examined, touched and sectioned almost every part of Jeanne.
Each year, at the conclusion of the anatomy course, a reception was held for the families of the cadavers. This was to honor the generous gift of the deceased, and to let the survivors meet the future doctors whose careers benefitted from that gift. So it was that on a bright May evening, warm with the smell of flowers from the gardens ringing the Dean’s residence, the four medical students comprising Victor’s anatomy group awaited Jeanne’s family.
“Group 32!” came the announcement from the foyer. This was Victor’s group. The moment had arrived for them to meet Jeanne’s family. Now their questions about her life would be answered.
While a certain amount of detachment is required of a student dissecting another human being, inevitably students wonder about the late person before them. Sometimes students make up life stories for their cadavers, and are astonished at how far from or, in rare instances, how close to the truth they came.
A young woman with a tag bearing her name and the crest of the school on her dress led them down the hall to a parlor where the family waited to meet them. There, they found an elderly woman, a middle-aged man and two adolescent children.
“This is the family of Regina Ardolino,” said the woman. Then, to the family: “These are Regina’s students.”
The woman left the room. After an awkward silence, Marty started, “My name is Marty Katz, this is Sharon Yablonski, next to her is June Fried, and the big guy is Victor Frenchstone.”
The middle-aged man indicated the elderly woman. “This is Rose LePanto, Regina’s mother. Next to her are Jerry and Tasha, Regina’s children. I am Ralph Ardolino, Regina’s husband.”
Victor was aware that Jerry and Tasha could not take their eyes off him. No doubt they had never seen anyone as massive or with scars like Victor’s. Victor smiled at them, and they backed away toward their father. Their grandmother wasn’t so happy at their staring and reprimanded both with a few words of Italian.
“It’s quite all right,” Victor said in Italian. “I know I look unusual.”
“Hey, Victor! Since when do you speak Italian?” asked Marty.
“I thought you were from Canada, or something,” said June.
“I learned Italian in Switzerland. Many Swiss are multilingual.” Victor left out that over two hundred years he had also mastered English and French, German being his native language.
“I didn’t know you were born in Switzerland.”
“Actually, my life began in Germany.”
“Where in Germany?”
Turning back to Rose, Victor said, again in Italian, “Please tell me more about Regina.”
“She was a happy child and an active, happy adult right up until the first heart attack.”
As a result of his fluency in Italian, Victor gained a far more intimate portrait of Regina than did any of his group mates. Rose told Victor about Regina’s childhood, her favorite games, her friends, and from there led Victor through all the important events of Regina’s life.
“Ralph was Regina’s college sweetheart. They were so well suited to each other. They have two beautiful children, Tasha and Jerry.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Victor noticed Tasha crying in Sharon’s arms. Jerry was trying hard to be manly as he conversed with Marty and June, but before long he was crying as well.
“Regina was completely devoted to Ralph and her children. Even as she fought back from her heart attacks, her only concern was for them. It was so hard on Tasha and Jerry. They loved their mother so. I just don’t know how they will grow up without her. Ralph is a good father, but children need both their father and mother.”
“I know all too well what it is to lose a parent,” said Victor. “It’s something that never leaves you.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. Were you close to your parents?”
“No, but it was devastating all the same.”
Like her grandchildren, Rose at first showed amazement at Victor’s size and appearance. But with time she came to appreciate Victor’s gentle manner and his soft, intelligent speech.
As he listened to her tell about Regina’s life, Rose could tell from his questions and his reactions that Victor was genuinely interested in Regina, her husband and her children. At one point, Rose reached out and rested her hand on Victor’s, as if to comfort him, her eyes looking at him as if he could offer her some hope.
“But you don’t know if you could have saved her. The cardiologists couldn’t.” Marty was talking with Victor over lunch.
“But Rose, her husband, her children. They were crushed.”
“So let’s say you could save her. She lives on a few years, and her heart gives out again. Or Ralph dies. Are you going to keep on saving him, then her—”
“Isn’t that what doctors do?”
“Well, yes, but at some point they have to die. No one lives forever. Look, you could become a cardiologist and save some patients from near death, but people die every day from any number of things. As a cardiologist, you can’t save a cancer victim. And an oncologist can’t patch together an accident victim. No matter what specialty you choose, Regina and Ralph are going to find some way to die. You just can’t beat death forever.”
“So all this study, all the great discoveries, all the great medical scientists in history have only bought man a short time? We can only give weeks, months?”
“Well, you might save a child who goes on to live a few decades.”
“A few decades! What is that compared to the ages? Why can’t we give that child hundreds of years, thousands of years?”
“Because we are made to live only a few decades, Victor. It’s in our nature. Besides, look at some of the old folks in the hospital. Time isn’t always kind. With age, some have grown weak, or have chronic pain, or lose interest in life. Now, what if those folks lived for hundreds of years? How much more miserable would they be?”
“With advances in medicine, not at all. A hundred years ago, life expectancy was only 50 or so years. Now it is 70 or 80. Back then, a 50-year old was sickly. Now he’s just middle-aged.”
“So wait a few centuries. Eventually life expectancy will be in the hundreds of years.”
“But what about all the people living now? What about Ralph and his kids? What about Rose? No parent should have to see their child die.”
“Victor, don’t get too attached to your patients. Hell, they aren’t even your patients.”
“Then consider your own case. You have a life expectancy of 70 or so years, eighty if you’re lucky. Someday your kids are going to miss you when you die. Why can’t you live hundreds of years? Why not thousands?”
“I’m a medical student, Victor. Not a philosopher.”
“Science tells us we live for decades, not centuries. This kind of speculation is philosophical, hardly scientific.”
“But what if there was some means by which death could be defeated? It seems all medicine can do is postpone it for a brief time, and that in only a subset of cases.”
“So what are you going to do? Search for the fountain of youth?”
“What if somehow the dead could be reawakened? What if there was a way to reverse the dying process?”
“You mean like Frankenstein?”
“No, not like Frankenstein!”
“Whoa, Victor! Easy! What’s wrong?”
Victor’s expression eased. “Sorry, Marty. I was just reminded of something.”
“Huh? Frankenstein? That was just a story.”
“They all thought he was mad. But he succeeded.”
“What? Who succeeded? What are you talking about?”
“They don’t know everything about medical history, Marty.”
“Like what, for example?”
“Do you think Frankenstein was insane?”
“That’s just fiction, Victor.”
“If you say so,” Victor replied. “But consider that fifty years ago we didn’t believe we could take a heart from one person and transplant it into another. Now it’s commonplace.”
“But the patient doesn’t die and come back, at least not from brain death.”
“We know most biological processes can be reversed. Why not death?”
“For one thing, the body decays after death.”
“Which process can be slowed by chilling, virtually halted by embalming. If we can restore the life processes, we can completely halt decay. When the cells begin to reproduce again, we could even reverse it!”
“But death is a natural part of life!”
“So is cancer, so are heart attacks, so is disease. But we try to cure cancer, treat heart attacks, kill bacteria. Why? Because they cause suffering. Death is the king of all these. Look at your terminal patients, look at those children and that mother we met today. We fight disease to ease suffering. Why shouldn’t we defeat death for the same reason?”
“We do defeat death, Victor.”
“Only for a day. I want to defeat death for all time.”
“Look, Vic. I gotta get ready for the physiology quiz. You dream your big dreams.”
Marty walked away shaking his head. Victor started to walk toward home, but something pulled him toward VanderVelde hall and the dissection lab.
.* * *
It had been several days since any of them saw Victor.
“And then Victor got upset. What’s Frankenstein got to do with anything?” Marty was talking with Sharon and June.
Sharon said, “There are all sorts of strange phobias out there. Maybe Victor was scared by a horror movie as a child.”
“Do they have horror movies in Germany?” asked June.
Sharon said, “Do we really know anything about Victor? Until that meeting with Regina’s family, I had no idea he spoke any other languages, or that he grew up in Europe.”
“He was always kind of private,” said Marty. “Maybe he’s just real shy.”
“Or he has something to hide,” said Sharon.
“I don’t know. He’s been acting different lately.”
“Yeah. Notice he’s been carrying around that pathology book. And he used to be kinda quiet and polite. Now he goes and growls at Marty for no good reason.”
June said, “Maybe the pressure’s getting to him. I sure feel stressed out at times. Like around finals.”
Sharon said, “Something’s just not right. There’s just something about him that’s... well, strange. I don’t like it.”
June turned on Sharon. “Are you picking on Victor just ’cause he’s ugly?”
“Okay, June. What do you know about Victor?”
“Where did he go as an undergraduate? Where does he live now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he just likes his privacy.”
“Or maybe he’s got something to hide. Did that ever occur to you?”
“Marty?” asked June, “do you suppose something’s wrong with Victor?”
“Victor?” Marty laughed. Then he remembered Victor getting upset at the mention of Frankenstein. “I don’t know what’s going on with him. But there is something different about him. Ever since we met with Jeanne’s... er... Regina’s family, he seems to be brooding. Now he’s disappeared. I wonder...”
* * *
It was dark and silent in the dissection lab. Victor switched on the lights. He saw the refrigerated cabinets on the far wall holding the remains of the corpses. He walked over to the one labeled “32” and pulled open the drawer. Pulling back the sheet, he looked down.
Here was Jeanne, who, all semester, had been just another corpse. Now she was Regina, a real person who had left a husband, a mother and two children. He thought back to her family, their tears, the stories Rose told him.
Then his thoughts shifted. What did Frankenstein see, looking down at me? What did he truly hope to accomplish? Was he challenging God?
Victor had suffered cruelly as a result of Frankenstein’s restoring his life. He realized that he suffered because he was rejected by his creator and had no one else to care. Regina had a family who missed her, who would welcome her back, if only...
“Let her go, Victor.” Marty was standing at the door.
Victor turned. “You gave me quite a shock, Marty.”
Marty walked over to the drawer. “You’ve been acting funny after meeting Regina’s family. Then you go missing. It took me a while, but I figured at some point you’d come here.”
“Look at her, Marty. Young, full of life. Now she’s gone. No more hopes, no more love.”
“She’s at peace, Victor. No more pain, no more suffering. Leave her be.”
Marty put his arm around Victor’s shoulders as they both looked at Regina. Then Marty gently closed the drawer. He had never seen Victor shaking like this before. After a minute, he led Victor toward the door.
“Victor, you okay?” asked Marty.
“Yeah, I’ll be all right.”
“You want to talk about it?”
Victor thought on this, then said, “Marty, there are some things a man has to work out on his own. Sorry.”
“Victor, we’re all concerned: me, Sharon, June. We don’t know much about you, so we don’t know how to help you.”
“You seem troubled lately. What about?”
Victor looked at Regina’s drawer, then at the floor. “If you knew the whole story you might not like me.”
“What are you, some kind of monster?”
Marty saw Victor take a deep breath, then clench his fists. After a few moments, Victor relaxed his hands.
“C’mon, Victor. You hungry? Let’s get something to eat.” Marty started to lead him out the door.
As Marty dropped his arm from Victor’s shoulders to reach for the light switch, Victor turned around. His eyes went directly to Regina’s drawer, almost expecting her to be standing there, looking back at him, pleading. He whispered, “I should go eat. I have a lot to consider.”
Then he turned to join Marty.
Copyright © 2015 by E. B. Fischadler