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Life Lessons from Dissecting Cadavers

And, we've launched the new site! To celebrate, I'll be posting a new blog post every day for the first week. To kick things off, some reflections on the unique experience of cadaver dissection:

We named him Henry, our cadaver.

I’ve been trying to think about how to put the experience of dissecting cadavers into words. It is challenging to capture such a multifaceted experience.

Honestly, it is fun. I enjoy a challenge that requires both intellect and dexterity. I enjoy joking about how the “special skills” section of my resume could resemble a serial killer. I enjoy learning about Henry’s life from the ways it visibly affected his body. I enjoy cutting and sawing and probing.

It is also smelly. The chemicals stink, our scrubs stink, bone dust stinks, and poop only gets grosser after sitting preserved for months.

It is violent. I have sawed a man’s head in half, skinned his face, created a trapdoor into his chest, and cut perfectly up the middle between his legs, through his pelvis, and then across his lower back and abdomen so one leg is no longer attached.

And it is human, the experience. It is an actual man we are cutting up, which is why we don’t take pictures of the cadavers, don’t bring guests in to show them off, and don’t go in to lab the night of Halloween. It is why we throw trash in the biohazard bin, but all the tissue goes in bags that stay with the body so it can all be cremated and returned to the family.

I learned a lot of anatomy. In addition, though, to all the names, locations, origins, insertions, and innervations, I picked up a few other lessons along the way.

Lesson 1: Laughter Makes Everything Better
Maurice riding Yorick's sella turcicaIn my experience, most poop jokes aren’t actually jokes. It’s mostly just saying the word “poop” and giggling. But it’s the best thing when spending hours in the anal triangle. And what better way to remember which part of the skull is the sella turcica (Latin for turkish saddle) than making a pipe cleaner man to ride on it? His name is Maurice, and by the end of lab he had evolved to be a space cowboy in reference to the 1973 Steve Miller Band hit The Joker. (The skull is named Yorick, and pictures are ok since it is just a skull, not a cadaver.)

Lesson 2: Interpretive Dance is a Great Memory Tool
It’s kinetic, funny, and communal - learning could hardly get more fun than the moments our lab group realized we had created another interpretive dance to add to our repertoire. Because of that, I’m sure I will never forget about perforating veins, popliteus, latissimus dorsi, or the cremaster muscle.

Lesson 3: Knowledge is Tangible.
Most of the time we talk about knowledge as something to be grasped by the mind. Working with cadavers reminded me to never forget that sometimes it can be grasped by the hand as well, that my conception of reality must include both the corporeal and the immaterial.

We named our cadaver Henry, but that name refers only to his body. When the ashes are returned to the family, they will mourn him by his real name, a name that refers to both body and soul.