I am twenty-four years old, and I hold a man’s heart in my hands. Muscles that used to pump blood through his body lie still against my fingertips. I don’t yet know what he looks like; whether for his sake or ours, a sheet will cover his face until we begin studying the oral cavity. As is usual in cadaver lab, muscles and nerves and arteries and veins jumble around in my brain—trabeculae carneae, Bundle of His, left anterior descending artery, coronary sinus.
On the wall between the left and right atria of the heart lies the fossa ovalis—almost indistinguishable from the surrounding tissue, little more than an indentation. It began as a hole allowing oxygenated blood to pass more efficiently through the fetal heart, slammed shut by the whooshing of blood through the chambers within the first six months of life. The remnant persists like a handprint on the wall of a cave: I was here, I exist. My usual flurry of memorization gives way to a curiosity about the little piece of history that remains here: inside of this man, inside of me.
I remember a story I read in ninth grade— “Eleven,” by Sandra Cisneros. “What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” The man lying before me is seventy-two, and seventy-one, and seventy, and—well. I can’t help but wonder about the many versions of himself he holds within him, less corporeal but just as integral as the fossa ovalis. When he signed the papers to donate his body, was he also twenty-four in a cadaver lab, holding a man’s heart in the palm of his hands—still so young and consumed with a fear of someday doing harm? Or maybe he was fifty-five again, in a doctor’s office—in remission from a life-altering illness, wondering about a way to help those who came after him.
I’m starting to understand more of what Sandra Cisneros had to say. When I was five I snuck into my parents’ room to sleep in their bed so many times that my mother started locking the bedroom door; three months ago I stood crying in their doorway again, asking if I could change my flight to stay another day. If I stripped back the layers of myself—if I made an incision down my middle—would my five-year-old self be there, coaxing my tear glands into production? Could I count the layers of myself like rings on a tree trunk? I cannot see them, but the more I age, the more I recognize the previous years inside me. The older I get, the younger I seem to feel.
I hope this man knows I have thought about this, that I look for traces of the person he was just as I look at the parts that built him. My lungs constrict with the urge to tell him I know he was here; he was a boy once, he cried to his mother once, he laughed and hurt and pumped blood through his arteries. I want to shout until he can hear me: I don’t know what your story is, but I know you have one all the same.
I will never know, but a part of that story now weaves into mine. When I am eighty-seven signing papers to donate my body, I will also be forty-nine and talking to a patient about his end-of-life care; I will be thirty-three and bandaging a child’s knee. I will be twenty-six and learning how to suture, I will be thirteen and reading “Eleven,” I will be ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. I will be twenty-four, holding a man’s heart in my hands. I will touch an indentation within it from a time he wouldn’t remember. A remnant of history, etched into anatomy.
Artwork by Eric Luo, MS-IV at USF Morsani College of Medicine