A Moment of Appreciation

April 25, 2018
Eric Postal, MD

Is the body more like art or a malfunctioning toilet?

Some years after medschool, at least partway through my radiology residency, a lifelong friend expressed curiosity regarding my outlook of the human body. Noting that I’d spent more than a little time learning the details of anatomy, both gross and microscopic, and how everything worked (or sometimes failed to), he wondered: Did I regard the body as a miraculous, beautiful work of art? Or did I consider it more, in his words, “a malfunctioning toilet”?

At the moment, I’m not precisely recalling my reply, but it leaned toward the commode-end of the spectrum. Partially because that answer struck me as being funnier. I do remember wishing that I’d had a stronger bias towards the artwork-end of things; it felt like cynicism might be impairing my ability to appreciate the beauty of it all.

I forget whether, at that point, I had yet experienced the wisdom of one of the more capable residents in my training-program. Along the same lines, he once observed to me his admiration as to how cleverly the body was designed. For instance, he noted how fascial planes served to sequester certain organs from one another, such that infection might not easily spread between them. Paraphrasing a bit, the bacteria-teeming bowel is kept safely away from the kidneys. (Until, he observed, some interloping surgeon goes and breaks down these barriers.)

Whether or not I had yet heard these musings when I was asked the artwork/toilet question, similar thoughts colored my response. Perhaps the result of being in an academic hospital-setting and seeing a LOT of pathology, there was a disproportionally small amount of normal imaging crossing my path. Lots of patients had undergone surgery, or otherwise had pretty distorted anatomy. If they had been works of art to begin with, life had done a lot to make their innards resemble toilets.

As subsequent years (and God knows how many thousands of cases) have gone by, I’ve had occasion to see a lot more normality. Or at least properly appreciate it when it crosses my path. Maybe because of that, every so often, I’ll catch myself just scrolling back and forth on images of a study, admiring the structure and form of the anatomy. And, yes, at such times it strikes me as being more than a match for anything I’ve seen in a museum.

When I first noticed it happening, I shrugged it off and moved on. After all, there was work to be done! In more recent moons, I’ve allowed these moments of appreciation to linger. They seem too important to rush.