East Bay Massage: Cadaver Anatomy Class

It wasn’t until several months after I had taken the cadaver anatomy class that I realized what an impression it had made on me. Making my son breakfast a few weeks ago, I was surprised to feel mildly revolted by the scent of his cinnamon-sprinkled bananas. I hadn’t noticed it at the time, but the… bouquet… in the lab was complex. Wetting fluids used to keep the tissues from getting all weird and dry had a certain undercurrent of what I now associate with warmth of cinnamon and the earthiness of bananas. I sat across the table from my son, watching him eat as I tried to escort images of dismembered pelvises out of my mind.

Not that it bothered me at the time. In fact, I was amazed at how the human brain works. As I waited for my friend to get there (we signed up together for moral support), I peered through the narrow window into the lab. This part of the building was pretty cold, and I shivered as I counted 5 metal tables with body bags on top. They weren’t zipped up neatly– the tops had simply been thrown over the cadavers like a carelessly made bed. I got worried about puking. I looked around the room from the window, not ready to go in yet.

Rubbermaid boxes were lined up on shelves, labeled things like:

ELBOWS

BISECTED HEADS

HEADS

BRAINS

KNEES

But, my friend showed up, class started, and the teacher was so matter of fact about all these dead people– actually, so enthusiastic about anatomy, that the gross-out part of my brain simply shut off. Within minutes I had weaseled my way to the front of the crowd and was hovering mere inches away from the wizened jerky-like tissues of cadaverous rhomboids. I scoffed at the dude who thought you can’t palpate the psoas muscle. I wasn’t puking, I was scoffing!

For the weekend, I spent a lot of time with cadavers– and I was totally in awe. I was into it.

Do you even have a clear picture of what “bisected head” means?? A head that has been sawed in half, vertically. I held that bisected head. And it was totally helpful to see the manner in which the meninges communicate with the occiput and the brain. And man, the nasal cavity, hard palate, and oral cavity are really amazing. At one point, the teacher, wanting to find a good example of scoliosis, went into the neighboring room, and came back, holding a spine, capped at either end with a man’s head and his pelvis. Inside the pelvis, the lowest lumbar vertebrae and sacrum were rotated 90 degrees. Incredible!

It’s interesting to me that we spend so much time and energy micro-scrutinizing our bodies, feeling bad about our hips, or wishing we had skinnier arms. Because, at the end of the day, everyone’s got meninges, everyone’s got rhomboids, everyone’s got muscles and bones and parts and things. A body can be an incredible teaching tool– there really is nothing like seeing the many variations possible in anatomy as when you have several lined up together for comparison. There really isn’t anything like seeing how the elbow articulates as by pulling on the tendons yourself. And you can bet that those bodies weren’t feeling badly about they way they looked– even when the teacher accidentally whipped me with a few tendons as he swung a leg in an arc before us. That leg was simply a leg. At one time useful and necessary, and now, actually, still so, only in a different way.

Cadavers are absolute and unapologetically vulnerable. They simply exist, and we learned so much from their being there. One might assume that in order to be in the presence of the dead it requires a certain constitution or lack of some primal sense of preservation. And yet, what my experience at the time was different. In some small way, I felt the matter of factness of the body. And whereas it may be impossible to always live in the clarity of that perspective, I have it filed away somewhere, and in a weird way, it’s comforting.

So yeah, I might have a strange reaction the next time my kid asks for cinnamon-sprinkled bananas, but the cadavers don’t mind. They are covered easily enough with the veil of taboo until I’m ready to reach for them. Comfortingly, it’s not like they’re going anywhere!

Thank you for visiting East Bay Massage!

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