Guest post by Kriota Willberg. Kriota was the inaugural Artist In Residence at the New York Academy of Medicine Library. Now, she is an AIR and teaches graphic medicine at NYU’s Master Scholars Program of Humanistic Medicine.
CADAVER DIARIES, A MEMOIR
(Trigger Warning: contains depiction of dissected cadavers.)
I teach a drawing class to med students, hospital faculty, and staff through the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine at the Grossman School of Medicine, NYU. For me, the lab and these classes are a treasure trove of bioethical, artistic, and anatomical discovery. Teaching Art and Anatomy and being around human cadavers as an artist instead of a student, anatomy instructor, or massage therapist, gave me an unanticipated opportunity to reflect on the ways I have consciously and unconsciously integrated certain behaviors I learned in cadaver labs into aspects of my professional life.
The primary behavior impressed on me in the dissection lab was the ability to selectively recognize a human body as a person or an object. This skill has been a successful coping mechanism for many young people confronted for the first time by a lab full of dead persons serving as anatomical specimens, an emotionally powerful experience.
When I was a student massage therapist practicing palpation and hands-on skills, my focus was so intense on anatomy that the living bodies under my hands became specimens as I practiced complex techniques.
Over decades, I taught myself to mindfully flip back and forth between appreciating my patients as human beings and as body parts. I also slowly began to recognize the cadavers I studied as people instead of specimens. While working as a massage therapist in an oncology setting, I mastered the technique of seeing my patients simultaneously as people and parts while caring for those with complex pathologies and/or poor cancer prognosis.
In 2019, I performed research for an (upcoming) book about surgery. I shadowed surgeons around a hospital as they went on their patient rounds, performed procedures, and consulted with patients and their families. The daily routine of giving some patients devastating diagnoses, cutting into living human bodies, performing high stakes surgeries, consoling family members, and treating patients experiencing cognitive issues, must take super-human effort.
I took these intense hospital experiences and my own experiences as a surgery patient back to the cadaver lab. My personal and professional experiences, combined with observation of these surgeons impressed upon me the value of being able to objectify a patient as a body (instead of a person) in order to perform procedures that are lifesaving in medical contexts but personally emotional, violent, and horrifying.
However, a major concern with patient comfort in medical care is that many patients feel dehumanized when receiving invasive treatments. And here I was in a cadaver lab teaching drawing to medical students, some of whom had never seen a dead body before. I was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude to the people who donated their bodies to medical education and I realized I had an opportunity to explore some of the potentially emotionally taxing elements of medical care with my medical/art students. I was also inspired to create a minicomic about the intensity of encounters with death, learning, and patient care based on my training with cadavers. So I did.
But there is an issue that will keep some readers from engaging with my book. As an artist sketching in the cadaver lab for my own pleasure (interesting choice of words!) I am still preoccupied with rendering an image that is understandable to a viewer, while I embrace the disorder and mess of dissection.
A dissected human body is simultaneously grotesque and beautiful. Being in the presence of these cadavers and students is a profound experience that I hope I have communicated with this minicomic. My drawings are not meant to teach anatomy but rather convey the impression of my experiences with these bodies. Therefore, these sketches may be described as “graphic”. Even though they are not photographs, representations of disfigured (i.e. dissected) bodies and faces of the dead are definitely distressing to some people. This will obviously limit my audience, but I believe it will also enhance my narrative. I hope this book is for you!
You can purchase a copy of Cadaver Diaries from the Birdcage Bottom Books website.