Sometimes students really get it

human skeleton from chin to hips

I used to teach Anatomy and Physiology – a twelve-month long, three hour a week course, half anatomy, half physiology.  A&P has a deadly reputation for difficulty and tedium that it completely deserves.  We instructors did what we could to lighten it up.  We had foot-high wooden skeletons and modelling clay; students built each muscle we studied, worked them in layers.  We had kinesiology exercises, where we’d watch a volunteer do something and analyze the movement chain, naming muscles, ligaments etc., and identifying hitches in their getalong – then we’d watch someone else do the same thing and note the differences.  We had videos, readings, anything we could think of to bring it all (literally) to life.

The local teaching hospital was connected to a medical school; they had cadaver classes.  We couldn’t afford to have cadavers.  We’d wait until all the classes at the hospital that worked with a cadaver were done – and there seemed to be several levels of students working with them – then the med school faculty would give “tours” of the much-dissected body to specially booked groups.  Each of our classes took a tour at least once.  There was always much anxiety and sometimes even dread among our students prior to this ritual.  Folks just aren’t used to being around dead bodies these days, much less bodies that have been dead for quite a while (nine months or more, usually), bodies that were deeply preserved, and have had hordes of people handling their bits and pieces. It helped that standard procedure was to cover the cadavers’  hands and face with wrapped gauze; those are always the hardest to deal with, the most personal parts that students respond to.

We’d stage our tours like  murder mysteries.  Students would put together everything they could glean about how this person lived, and died, based on how they’d used their bodies.  Once the initial nervousness passed, it got to be quite fun, and helped students get over the essential weirdness of having someone’s dura mater or esophagus handed to them.  Our students were getting a good sense of structure, but none of the glory of our human construction.  We used other tools to convey that.

Let’s take just a moment to acknowledge the person who hosts these tours to specialized groups.  Sometimes we got a staff pathologist, sometimes it was more of an alternate.  One man was a retired MD who had had 23 shunt surgeries to his brain; we were more interested in him.

In a teacher’s life, every now and then a student will do something that tells you they really get it, whatever the “it” is you were trying to convey.  It is the glory moment.  You know you have not labored in vain – and teaching A&P is loads of true labor.  For me, in this class, the most gratifying moment ever was when one of my students wrote a poem to the cadaver the day after her tour.  I don’t have permission to tell you the student’s name, but I hope she sees this so she can know how inordinately proud I am of her.  She got it.  She really did.

Our cadaver’s name had been Alice.  She was eighty-eight when she died, and we figured she had been in a wheelchair for a number of years – the kind where her feet could still touch the floor, so she “walked” her chair around.  She’d been on a liquid diet for quite a while.  She’d given birth at least three times before her hysterectomy.  She died of a stroke – the clot a small point of dark in her brain.  It didn’t look like nearly enough to end eighty-eight years of living.  The day after “meeting” Alice, my student brought me this.  It made my year.

Alice, My Instructor

tonight my instructor

was Alice, the cadaver

Alice with just a first name

her soul long departed

her body sliced into sections

dead for so long

they bear little resemblance

to life

or their original form

what she really had to teach

left with her last breath

after eighty eight years

I’m sure she had stories

but she left behind only a few clues

in her hip

and blood clotted brain

nothing about the true pain

and pleasure she knew

even the parts that allowed her

to give birth

were missing

but at the risk of seeming ungrateful

I want to thank her

for leaving her remains

I did learn something

about how our parts

fit and work

and I gained a greater appreciation

for the preciousness

and miracle of life

certainly more

than her dissector, the doctor

had to offer.

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