Ode to a Body Donor

This is part of the Medical Humanities Series on Op-Med, which showcases creative work by our members. Do you have a poem, short story, creative nonfiction or visual art piece related to medicine that you’d like to share with the community? Send it to us here.

Surprise at the weight of being
Curved complexity in our hands
Hills and valleys of memory and emotion
Secret places that only you knew
Lost spaces that left with you
When you died alone

Final thoughts unheard
Errands left undone
A phone call, unanswered
A young man found alone
Cause of death: unknown

Parts identified, parts hidden
Strong muscles
Supple Skin
Hair, dark with youth
We traced your arteries and veins
like rivers and roads on a map,
And learned the shape and weight of that which makes us human

We searched for signs of pathology or illness
To give meaning to your final moments
And now, we leave not with answers,
profound realizations on mortality,
Or even how to identify all the muscles in the foot

But rather deep gratitude, more questions
And “practical” knowledge
Of the worlds beneath our skin

What inspired this piece?

This poem was written about my anatomy lab donor. At the beginning of our course, we received a sheet of paper that only told us his age and that he was found dead of unknown causes. Looking around the room, we realized that our donor was significantly younger than the others, having died at the age of 39. My anatomy group and I reflected on these facts throughout the year and wondered, as we dissected the various organ systems, if we would stumble upon the answer as to how he died. We started each anatomy lab with a moment of silence, deeply grateful for this gift of learning and saddened by the reminder that he died so young. In this poem, I tried to reflect on not-knowing and share my feelings and thoughts from this difficult and rewarding experience.

Why did you choose poetry to write about this topic?

I don't often write poetry but I felt like the only way I could start expressing some of my feelings about this process was through this particular medium.

How long have you been writing? How did you get into it? How does it relate to your medical practice?

I have been writing for a long time as a way to reflect on past experiences and create something new out of them. Writing, for me, is a necessary aspect of my medical school learning process. With the fast-paced nature of medical school and medicine, writing provides an invitation to slow down and process the experiences, emotions, and stories that we are exposed to every day. Writing is a vehicle for growth, reflection and resilience.

Odette Zero is a medical student pursuing a dual MD/MsC in Primary Care Population Medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. 

Illustration by Yi-Min Chun

More from Op-Med