My son Christopher, a first-year medical student, has just begun his Anatomy course, marking with a pen the body landmarks and dissection lines on the skin of the female cadaver assigned to his dissection group. Lines in place, the scalpel comes next. He said it was his first experience in medical school that imparted such a visceral sensation, with no pun at all intended. Unlike him, I remember needing to lean lightly on humor on my first day in the very same Anatomy class, when the four of us students first met our cadaver in the fall of 1976, that of a skinny man in his nineties: it was surely a solemn, awe-inspiring moment, but also made us (I had just turned 21) a bit nervous and anxious– and in such circumstances, we often resort to humor to ease our discomfort. With all respect, we voted to name our cadaver Slim.
In the year 2196, organs are grown in situ by injecting specialized stem cells intravenously, but there have been notable mishaps. Here’s an excerpt form my first novel, Fourth World, in which Dr. Nestor Neelin demonstrates on a cadaver, whose name is Bob. The course he teaches is Recombinant Anatomy:
Neelin dived in quickly: “Now if you’ll observe: here in Bob’s brain, there sit not one, not two, but look– three temporal lobes! Bob, you see, suffered a devastating stroke in his sixties, and in those early days of therapeutic stem cell infusions, an effort was made to replace the lost brain tissue. This effort marked a step forward in stem cell technology, prior to which most tissue types, such as brain, liver, eyes and so on, required engineering in vitro, then transplantation of the developed tissue to the patient. The new targeted stem cells, in contrast, could be infused intravenously, and would find their way to their appropriate location, guided by seeker molecules implanted in their membranes. There they would differentiate to the desired organ, thus obviating the need for a transplant procedure. In Bob’s case, the infused stem cells did develop into a temporal lobe as planned, but unfortunately, growth stimulators infused at the same time caused the partially necrotic lobe to regenerate within his already-crowded skull– leaving him, quite literally, with not enough room to change his mind!”
Many in the audience, confused by this last phrase- was it meant to be funny?– consulted their data-discs only to find their screens blank. Only one laugh could be heard, a loud “HA!” coming from the opposite side of the hall, some twenty rows below Lora. “Ha-HAH!” the same voice persisted. And that was how Lora finally located Benn.
Neelin held his right hand up. “I have one more example of quackery to show you. Bob, you see, was a victim not only of technical incompetence, but of outright fraud. Late in his life, he fell out of a Banyan tree while bird-watching in the district then known as Australia. He sustained a pelvic fracture and had to enlist the help of a migrant clinic in the back country, in order to regenerate the broken bone. They infused him with an unidentified stem cell, his diary shows, but the end result was only discovered at Bob’s post-mortem.” Neelin appeared to be rummaging around in Bob’s intestines. He finally pushed them toward the back with outstretched fingers, exposing two thin bony structures pointing upward from the pelvis. Puzzled interns frantically interrogated their data-discs, again without success.
“Their treatment provided Bob, bless his original heart, with these two extraneous bones, which you see protruding here. These bones did nothing to help Bob with his pelvic fracture, but he would have found them useful– very useful indeed– had he… been… born… a…” Neelin paused expectantly.
“A kangaroo!” shouted Benn triumphantly.
Neelin released Bob’s intestines with a loud flop and whirled around to face Benn. “A kangaroo or any marsupial– excellent! Young man, you are the first intern in over two decades to recognize these as epipubic bones: their function is to support a marsupial’s pouch. Excellent! Your name, please?”