We first-year medical students had our first lab session a few weeks ago. We gloved up, scrubbed up, and wielded a scalpel – the key to uncovering the secrets hidden below our skin.

My team’s donor, an older gentleman who gave his body to the advancement of medical education, lay on his back. He was abnormally frigid and stiff to the touch; his face shrouded with a white cloth to protect his identity.

Without any exchange of words, we knew to pause and just soak in the gravitas of the moment. We stood, for the first time ever, in front of the manifest dichotomy of life and death. Yes, the man was deceased, but he still lay preserved as a symbol of a life lived.

What life had he lived? Was he a wise grandfather with wrinkles that deepened whenever his granddaughter made him grin? A spouse to a loving partner with whom he shared his halcyon years? Did he have a favorite song that reminded him of that middle school dance where he stole a kiss from Sally? Or was it Jenny? I wonder if he could remember.

He lay at the precipice of a life beyond and a life forgone. He was waiting for us – waiting for us to learn. A teacher who gave his life for students he had never met. Few causes can be as selfless.

Dissect, we are told, and so we dissect, fumbling tools and maneuvering skin folds in order to reach the structures we’re supposed to visualize in the times we are sandwiched between.

As I explore his body, I can’t help but dissect myself. Do my muscles look like that? Do I have that much fat layered upon them? If I felt my vertebral spinous processes, would I notice a lordosis, kyphosis, or, perhaps, some scoliosis from all that stooping I do while studying? Could I die of the same thing he did?

There are medical schools that are currently moving away from dissection and into pro-section, where the dissection is done for the medical student, and digital dissection, where your dissection experience is akin to that of a smartphone app’s. While those are certainly more efficient, there is a very visceral aspect lost in the transition; namely, a deep appreciation for just how paradoxically complex, simple, solid, and fragile our bodies are.

Even more importantly, it’s hard not to realize your own mortality as you slice into someone else’s. The truth is, dissection is as much exploration as it is self-evaluation. An exercise into equal depths muscles and memories, fascia and fears, bone and being – a discovery of what it really means to be human.

Perhaps that is the greatest gift these donors offer. For that, and more, we thank them.