Every (Dead) Body Has A Story
When the first-year medical students at Table 4 met their male cadaver, they weren’t pleased.
The group was in the home stretch of anatomy class at NYU School of Medicine, and the final exam was a couple weeks away. They had dozens of vessels, nerves, and organ components to memorize.
And this cadaver was an interloper. They had grown attached to the first body they were dissecting -- an elderly woman whose chest cavity was nice and neat, but whose intestines were so ravaged by cancer there was no point in working on her anymore.
But this new body on Table 4 proved more challenging, they said.
“Now we can’t see anything in our new body [in the chest], and we can’t refer back to that first work we did,” said student Samantha Ayoub, expressing the frustration of her six-person group.
Medical school instructors often refer to the cadavers as the students’ “first patient.” There are about 20,000 of them donated to U.S. medical schools each year, according to the Harvard Business School.
The schools encourage students to be grateful and respectful to these bodies, but with rare exceptions, schools don’t encourage students to think too hard about the lives of these “patients” prior to the dissection table.
And as it turns out, the body on Table 4 was far more than a collection of vessels and valves. Literally and figuratively, he was an instructor, guide and teacher.
His name was Haig Manoukian, and he and his wife, Michele Piso Manoukian, decided to donate his body to NYU so he could continue being an educator.
“He would become part of someone else’s wisdom,” Michele said.
Haig was a musician – a world-renowned player of the oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument, similar to a lute or guitar. People came from far and wide to study with him.
“He was very analytical and very patient,” Michele said. “I can kind of picture him [in anatomy lab], talking to the students about what they’re doing and the equipment they’re using, and saying, ‘Oh, you’re using this one? How interesting!’”
The six students at Table 4 knew none of this. At NYU and most places, cadavers’ identities are kept anonymous. The students found out from our reporter at Only Human, with NYU’s permission.
They were all fascinated, both by Manoukian’s career as “the Jimi Hendrix of the oud” and by the details of his terminal illness and his decision to donate his body to their education.
They were glad they didn’t know too much about Manoukian earlier – so they could dissect without knowing his cause of death in advance, and so they could avoid dealing with death emotionally. But some had mixed feelings.
“I feel bad that we didn’t really think about [his life],” said student Bianca Kapoor. “When you’re in the weeds of things, you don’t really think about that, because you’re just focused on ‘This vein goes to what vein?’”
After their course, Michele invited the students to a tribute to Haig’s life with several dozen friends and family members. There was food and music and reminiscence. Michele was busy playing hostess, but she greeted the group warmly, and they later agreed to get together for tea.
They promised her that his life would live on in their work.
“I hope I do that justice,” Samantha Ayoub said. “And honor his life and be a good doctor.”
WATCH: Haig Manoukian (far left) plays the oud at a summer retreat