What I Learned Dissecting a Human Cadaver

No, I’m not a medical student. Nor am I a doctor.

But I am insatiably curious about the human race. In another life, perhaps I would have been an anthropologist. But enough day-dreaming!

Let’s time-travel for a moment. It was January 2016. New England was in the midst of a cold, icy winter, but nowhere near as brutal as the frigid, below-zero abyss that was Minneapolis, Minnesota.

So naturally, I booked a flight. Found myself departing Boston in an American Airlines aisle seat a few weeks later. Only a single suitcase in tow.

No, I wasn’t escaping New England for a cross-country skiing adventure in the Midwest. I brought no skis, but instead my suitcase carried pens, mechanical pencils, and a myriad of neon highlighters.

Bad-ass, right?

My destination was the University of Minnesota. Its sprawling Twin Cities campus was situated squarely in Minneapolis and riddled with one-way streets and bustling pedestrians.

Although I was not a matriculated student, I was fortunate enough to participate in a graduate-level medical course focused on the Anatomy and Physiology of the Pelvis and Urinary System.

Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but as someone who is fascinated by the biological sciences, I was thrilled. What an experience this would be.

It was an accelerated course that lasted three days. Each morning, we met in the great hall at 8 A.M. Platters of pastries, bagels, and fruit adorned the banquet tables outside the lecture hall.

After a quick breakfast and pleasantries, we engaged in a three-hour lecture which covered all the material that would prepare us for afternoon laboratory.

After a brief lunch break, we headed upstairs to the locker rooms to change into scrubs. Once in lab, we washed our hands with antibacterial soap and donned latex gloves.

With a concise introduction to lab protocol and equipment use guidelines, we were prepped to work. Our time in laboratory was collaborative amongst our tables, with four students assigned to each cadaver, but also fiercely independent.

While I won’t delve into the gritty details, out of respect for the donors as well as those with a weak stomach, I will share wholeheartedly what I took away from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Few experiences in life have the capacity to humble an individual so deeply. Or so I would imagine. I’ve never experienced anything quite so humbling as dissecting a human cadaver.

Unveiling the lifeless corpse for the first time, struck with the pungent odor of formaldehyde-based preservation solution, the tangible remains of what was once a beautiful, thriving human being lay naked before me.

Naked in every sense of the word. Exposed, preserved, and packaged deliberately for the purpose of our intellectual enrichment. Our education.

I’ve witnessed acts of selflessness. Of utmost generosity. What lay before me now was perhaps the most selfless gift a human being could give.

A human sacrifice, literally. A human body, scoured of its humanity. But this donor gave us more than her body. She gave us an opportunity to see life differently.

What I saw that day, hovering over the lab table with a scalpel in hand, was more than a corpse.

What I saw was the tangibility of a body juxtaposed to the ephemeral nature of human life.

In all its complexity, life is so much more than our tangible existence. A body is merely life’s humble abode during its time on Earth.

And while I can’t speak to what happens after death, I will say this — cadavers force us to see life through an entirely different lens.

A lens that distinguishes humanity from the human body. Humanity lies in our legacy, on the impact that we have on the world. Lives that we touch.

While a body is merely a body. A vessel through which life is portrayed.

In this moment, I saw myself in that corpse. It struck me with great humility that eventually, I would become this cadaver.

Despite all my human intricacies, personality quirks, and desires, my fate was ultimately no different than anyone else’s.

My life, my accomplishments, my experiences — despite all of it, I realized, I will eventually cease to exist. Much like the woman whose corpse lay in front of me.

Humbling, indeed.

But despite our fate, despite the inevitable finiteness of human life, despite everything that cadaver taught me, it also instilled in my curious mind an even greater epiphany.

Despite all that, it is so immensely important to fulfill our potential. Our time here is inherently finite. It is never guaranteed. Rather, it is a gift.

To waste it would be to scoff at the universe’s generous donation. At this woman’s selfless donation.

Taking in the unforgettable sight of the corpse laying before me, I hunched over the lab table. I gripped my scalpel in my latex-covered fingers, took a deep breath, and braced myself.

Today would be a day that I would recount fondly for a long, long time.

Holistic Wellness | Psychology | Mental Health | Mindfulness | Nature | Powerful advocate of positive psychology and intellectual curiosity :)

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