Cadaver Lab? Sign this massage student up!

Being in our massage school requires lots of time outside of class: clinics, community service, working a sporting event. Neat experiences and exposure, but still a lot of extra time on top of a full course load. However, there was one very unique opportunity, as well: we could go to the cadaver lab at a local hospital and see the inner workings of the human body in a very real way. I figured it would be a great opportunity to reinforce what I was learning in myology and in A&P. I knew I probably would never have a chance like that again, so I signed up immediately.

fascial musclesRight on the heels of signing up came the doubts and second-guessing. I’m prone to nightmares after watching a Law and Order marathon; what would those night visions turn into after seeing dead bodies? I refused to watch my own knee surgeries, too disgusted by the thought of them. Would I really be able to be in a room full of cadavers, with all of their associated smells, and not pass out or throw up?

The excursion was described pretty well, which helped to ease my mind. We had to be on time to be allowed in to the secured area, but we were free to step out at any point if we felt unwell. The bodies had been drained of all fluids, so we should not expect them to look too lifelike, and faces were covered, which took some of the personal qualities away, as well. Further, we were told how the whole process worked: a group of medical students had the same cadaver for a year, after which a ceremony was held for the deceased’s family, in honor of their gift to science. It was described as a very caring and respectful process.

By the time the evening arrived, I was really excited at the prospect of what it held. I’d grown to love the sciences in the classroom, and had become enamored of the human body, with all its wonderful possibilities. I was eager to have that enthusiasm heightened by this deeper exploration and by the med students who’d given up their night to answer our questions.

We gathered in groups to enter the room, got gowned and gloved, and my group wound up at the first station: the thoracic cavity. I spent a few moments getting acclimated to the smell, which wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but then decided to go big or go home. This person had very healthy lungs, so I asked permission to touch them. Of course, that was part of the purpose, so I was encouraged to do so. I was amazed at how resilient they were, firm, yet squishy; any fears I had were gone, and I wanted to touch every type of tissue exposed.

As we cycled through the various stations, my inhibitions were gone, and I was swept away by the experience. I tugged on flexor digitorum profundis and watched four digits curl up. I poked at kidneys and a liver, found pacemakers embedded in a couple of chests (on the right side- who’d’ve guessed that??), and saw what a patella looked like embedded in its tendon.

And then came the moment of glory: I held a human brain. It was an awe-inspiring experience to think of what that small globe of tissue had done for that person over their lifetime, and here it was in my hands. The cranial nerves were so easily visible, and looked exactly like a handout we’d received in class. We saw the spinal cord and cauda equina; again, such a small thing, but so amazingly powerful. The med students were wonderfully patient with us, and I was truly appreciative of their sacrifice of time. Sadly, the night had come to an end.

My initial worries had been entirely unwarranted, and I was buzzing with an awed enthusiasm and excitement. I wished it had been hours longer, but was grateful for the time I’d had. We discussed it the following day in class, where I received amazing news: our class would be able to sign up for the return trip to the cadaver lab in the spring!! It was almost too good to be true. Thoughts of that next visit remained in my head, and the much-anticipated dates were finally announced.

As it worked out, on this visit I was in a group with some of my closest friends from my class, and we fed off each other’s excitement, which made this evening even better than the first. We traveled from station to station, diving right in, locating muscles, reciting mnemonics we’d committed to memory, quizzing each other on various structures.

Wrapping our fingers around a girthy psoas major, we commented on how easily this muscle could wreak havoc on a person. We got to see and handle a dissected heart, adding depth to our understanding of pulmonary circulation. Seeing a cross section of a sacrum induced us to awed silence. Most of the med students appreciated our unbridled excitement, taking advantage of it to teach us more about the body than we’d ever need to know as massage therapists. Those who lost patience with us here and there, well, I can’t blame them; at times we took on the air of teaching them, sometimes ignoring their presence momentarily to discuss the tissue at hand without benefit of their input. Our enthusiasm knew no bounds.

I was most excited to revisit the cranial station, and finally we arrived there. This time there was one full brain, as well as half of another, so we had very different access to the various structures of that mystical tissue. We located what we believed to be the Circle of Willis, which we’d just learned about in class that week. We were challenged to take a clamp and tug on spinal nerves as they exited the spinal cord; those nerves remained solidly intact. Again, I was awed that this three or so pounds of tissue could be responsible for so much! It was hard to believe, but I was even more inspired this time around.

Again, this night drew to a close. This time it was a bit more poignant, since I knew I would not have another chance to return. However, I was even more grateful, because my friends and classmates made it a more wonderful experience, and the medical students reacted warmly to our enthusiasm.

Many thanks to the hospital for this opportunity, to the med students for their time and the sharing of their knowledge, and to those who donated their bodies, for without that selfless act, an influential piece of my education would have been lost. I would have been none the wiser, so I thank them for that honor.

Melissa Ryan is our 2014 Helping Others Scholarship award winner and a student at Center for Natural Wellness School of Massage Therapy in Albany, NY. You can read more about her here, and read more of her posts here.

Image courtesy of farconville /