Cold Roast Beef

Just when you thought I had finished talking about Thanksgiving, here it is again. A few weeks ago, between patients, I was catching up with other physicians’ blogs. Yes, readers, I have discovered that I am not the only one, nor am I the most articulate or humorous or erudite MD to put fingers to keyboard. Some of my fellow writers are very very good, and when I can figure out to get a blog roll going on the sidelines of my page, I will share their sites with you. Anyway, I came across an essay by a medical student where she thanked her cadaver for allowing her to learn by his donation of his body “to science.” For those of you who don’t know what happens when one donates one’s body to science, I can tell you that most of the time the final resting place is the medical school anatomy lab. Here the alpha of gross anatomy is the human upper arm, where the ropey bundle of nerves which makes up the brachial plexus is dissected free in order for the student to understand the complexity of how we use that delicate instrument, the human hand. The omega, or the last body part dissected, is the brain.

So the thing about her essay which really struck me, besides her sincerity, was one sentence, paraphrased here—“I don’t think I’ll ever eat roast beef again.” That one line took me right back to medical school and my own gross anatomy lab where I too dissected a human being, thirty seven years ago. Back in those days, before the Health Information Privacy laws of 1996 gave us the right to keep sensitive health issues anonymous and long before we willingly gave up that right by broadcasting every sniffle and sneeze on Facebook, cadavers were actually sent to the anatomy lab still wearing their hospital bracelets. My man’s last name shall remain with me, but his first name was Herman and I even knew his birthday. Before you exclaim, “How AWFUL!” think about it. To me and the preceptor and the three other members of my team, this man was not just a body to be dissected—he had been a living breathing human named Herman who had thought enough of the process of training young doctors to give us himself—all of him. It was personal.

In death, the body gives up all of its secrets. Herman gave me my first experience of seeing cancer from the inside out. He died of lung cancer, and his lungs were full of tumors, as were his liver, his bones and even the soft tissues of the muscles of his body. We dissected and discussed our findings during the long days, reeking of formaldehyde. Gradually through the course of a semester, I discovered the evil and relentless nature of his disease. One night after anatomy lab I dreamed that I took him home with me. I laid him down on my living room couch. He did not talk; he did not move. He was just there, with flesh the color of old roast beef. The dream was very real and I woke up half expecting to walk into my living room and see him there on the couch. It was years before I could eat roast beef again.

Three years ago at Thanksgiving, I decided that I would cook a whole beef tenderloin, in addition to having the traditional turkey. After all, I’m a carnivorous Texan and red meat is not that bad for you if you don’t eat it all the time. This year, with a twenty five pound turkey, a four pound beef tenderloin and only nine people to feed, we had lots of leftovers. As I loaded a plate with sliced beef, done to a perfect medium rare, I had a transient moment of discomfort, a slight sensation of nausea, and a very brief flashback to Herman and anatomy lab. Next year, perhaps I will do a lasagna, or a nice fettucine alfredo instead!


  1. When a dear friend died 3 years ago, I was honored to deliver her eulogy. In addition to personal reminiscences, I talked about her dedication to learning which included willing her remains to medicine. What most moved me and inspired me to follow where she led was knowing that the medical school where she now resides and continues her good work, informed the family that ‘given a number of physical anomalies, she will continue to teach for 6 or 7 more years. I can imagine nothing more rewarding.

  2. It’s not the same, I suppose, to dissect a dog or a pony (as we did in vet school) but it IS riveting to really see how it all goes together. And it is even more awesome when I do surgeries.

    I am so glad that I am a veterinarian and that I can be a generalist and be both a surgeon and an internist.

  3. My parents both willed their bodies to Johns Hopkins. But they died in Michigan, not New Jersey, and I couldn’t cope with getting their bodies there.

    And truthfully, have done anatomy dissection in school, and lots of necropsies over the years, I just could not allow them to be cut. Isn’t that strange?

    Just as the fact that I perform euthanasias for clients on a regular basis, and have even done them on my own animals, but after my sister and father died I just could not bring myself to put down either of my two beloved oldest cats, which is how Pierette ended up wearing preemie diapers in her cat bed that was on my desk.

    We can only do what our souls allow us to do. It is important to listen to our intuition.

    1. It’s not strange that you could not bring yourself to have your parents dissected or to put down your cats. I agree completely–it’s an individual decision. It’s interesting that the orthodox Jewish religion forbids autopsies, cremations and body donations- even open caskets–it’s considered desecration of the body. I am sure there are other cultural proscriptions as well. But it is very much to the benefit of medical students to do the dissections. M

  4. Before I “retired” from nursing, a friend who is a pathologist allowed me to observe an autopsy. The man had died, presumably, of heart disease. While I watched him slicing the liver, I asked how he could continue to eat meat & sushi after doing this all the time. He still loves & eats meat & sushi is a favorite meal.
    By the way, the diener had difficulty dissection the heart from the chest cavity, there was so much fibrosis. I asked if the patient ever had radiation therapy & found he was treated for Hodgkins Lymphoma years earlier, having received mantle radiation. After my 20 years working in radiation therapy, it was an education to see the results from the inside out, and realizing that without it, he probably would have died a lot sooner.

  5. It is fascinating that you dreamed of taking your Herman home with you! I love dreams. Thank you for sharing this dream and information about donation.

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