HISTORY OF A REPUGNANT HANDICRAFT
HAVE WE AT LAST ARRIVED IN A PARADOXICAL AGE WHERE TECHNOLOGY HAS EQUIPPED US WITH MECHANISMS BETTER SUITED THAN THE HUMAN BODY TO INVESTIGATE THE HUMAN BODY?
COME MEET BABYSIM!
Goethe, in his novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, depicts Wilhelm’s encounter with a cadaver readied for dissection—a scene likely imbued with details from Goethe’s own experience as a gentleman-student of the time. Wilhelm discovers the specimen before him is the body of a young woman who has drowned herself in despair over an unhappy love affair. Lifting the sheet that covers the body, the student spies “the loveliest female arm that had ever been wound around the neck of a young man,” and, as the vision overwhelms him, “his reluctance to mutilate this magnificent product of nature any further struggled with the demands which any man striving for knowledge must place on himself, and which everyone else in the room was busy satisfying.”
The narrator’s (and, one surmises, Goethe’s) qualms about using human bodies for medical education, as well as the often unsavory methods of the time for acquiring those bodies, are addressed by a visitor who suggests an alternative to anatomical destruction: the use of fabricated models. The visitor takes Wilhelm to a studio lined wall-to-wall with wax figures that have “the fresh, colorful appearance of newly prepared specimens.” Wilhelm is enthusiastic about the sculptor’s vision of a sanitized future for medical training, where models will replace the practice of carving up dead bodies for medical study, a practice he labels “a repugnant handicraft” that “especially among naturally moral, high-minded people… always has something cannibalistic about it.”
Perhaps it was a deep-seated fear of cannibalism driving the sixth annual International Meeting on Medical Simulation, held at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina in January of 2006. With its isolated torsos and heads, bodiless appendages, simulated arms and legs hanging in booths with entreating banners like Come Meet Babysim!, the exhibition hall I walked into felt like a triumphant pageant or a Barbie butcher shop.
“How exciting is it to be at the dawning of an emerging field?” Dr. Daniel Raemer, president of the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, asked the attendees. “So many new colleagues,” he continued with enthusiasm, “nascent ideas, groundbreaking technologies appear before us at a rate that exceeds our ability to fully embrace them.” This mood of excitement, of pioneers assembled at the edge of uncharted territory, was reflected plainly in the faces of the hundreds of eager medical professionals as they milled jovially about the chandeliered exhibition hall.
I stood surrounded by the cutting edge in fabricated human bodies, surveying a range of goods that seemed both ahead of its time and quaintly, earnestly representational—the expressions of both discomfort and entreaty on the mannequins’ faces, the personality alluded to in a blond pediatric model, “Dylan,” by his low-rise basketball shorts and endearing cowlick. The busily curious doctors and nurses exhibited no trace of hesitation and squeamishness, instead using these lifelike models for what they were—tools for learning. At booths for companies with names like Limbs & Things, they eagerly practiced intubation (the difficult task of putting a breathing tube down a patient’s throat) or slid needles into mannequins that dripped fake blood onto the floor below. Ultrasound machine probes sought out fabricated tumors and cysts coyly suspended in “phantoms,” yielding gelatinous shapes made to conduct sound waves exactly like human tissue.
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