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Annie Storkey

An unusual book through my door...

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Edited by Annie Storkey, Friday, 29 Oct 2021, 16:45

*Warning - sensitive discussion on death*

One dark evening in December, I received a book through my letterbox called 'Stiff - The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers'. Now, some people might find that a creepy book to get posted through your door but luckily I knew who had posted it. I had recently struck up a conversation with a local ex-councillor who wants to set up a community meeting to discuss advance directives (where you set out what treatment you would like in the event of not having the capacity to decide for yourself during serious or terminal illness). I am interested in death cafes so we had a meeting to discuss it. Hence she thought I might enjoy a book about cadavers.

She was right, my reading taste is determinedly non-fiction and I teach K220 'Death, dying and bereavement' so the book was up my street. All the same, it wasn't the sort of book I would usually buy as I avoid what sounds like sensationalist literature. But I actually found it very interesting. Some of the discussion was familiar to me such as medical dissection and forensic science. Other sections weren't (the contribution of cadavers to car crash legislation, for instance). But what was most fascinating was my emotional reaction to the discussion - I didn't have one. Well, not until we got to the chapter on organ transplants.

Let me explain. I was a nurse for twenty years and during that time I cared for many dying people at various stages of their lives, including directly after they died. Whilst I am a very empathetic carer and would often cry with patients and relatives, I have no fear of dead bodies nor am I squeamish. I can also separate out the concept of a dying person and a lifeless cadaver - I held my mother's hand as she died and I visited my father in the mortuary. So most of the subject matter did not produce an emotional reaction in me other than interest in the detail given. But the chapter on organ transplantation was different; I was filled with immense sadness and wanted to cry. This is because the person involved had a beating heart and pink skin, she had the obvious visual features of a living person - she looked like an unconscious patient and was cared for as such. But she was brain dead and in that grey area between life and death and soon someone would be mourning her loss. This was interesting for me as I had never seen transplant surgery from the perspective of the donor before, only the mourners and the organ recipients. It was worth reading the book just for this new level of empathy.


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