Gross anatomy (noun): the branch of anatomy that deals with the structure of organs and tissues that are visible to the naked eye.
If there was one thing that semi-prepared me for gross anatomy class in college, it was growing up in a fishing family.
Frankly, commercial fishing is "gross" in the more standard sense of the word. The strong smells of rotten herring and rotten clams in old bait containers was a regular part of the job. Going along with the wrath of Mother Nature in the form of rough storms, ocean swells and tall waves, it sure tested my staying power.
Surviving the rigor of piles of challenging science courses during college was a similar feat. Just when I thought it would never end — getting pounded by my metaphoric big waves and feeling like I may not come out alive — I did. And not just alive, but more determined than ever.
Rochester, New York, summer of 1996 —The first task at hand in Gross Anatomy class lab was to turn our cadavers over from their backs to their stomachs. This was when the art of respecting the human body officially began. We were to do everything with our cadavers in a thoughtful, caring manner.
"If I see anyone disrespecting these cadavers in any way, you'll be out of this physical therapy program so fast you won't even know what happened to you," Dr. Beattie politely threatened us. He was our very attractive, typically jovial anatomy professor who was always seen freshly showered in a set of clean, blue scrubs. His words rang strong in minds. The jokesters of our 80-person class toned it way down for those eight weeks. On Day 1 of lab, my classmates and I were armed with VapoRub under our noses and the false notion that it could hold off the strong smell of formaldehyde. The formaldehyde ended up permeating our entire beings for eight weeks.
In groups of four around our bodies, with scalpels in hand, we made the first incision on the backs of our cadavers to peel away the skin and expose the fat. Every day was routine, with the goal of exposing muscles, nerves, organs and arteries and see how elements of the body fit together, like a big puzzle. The work became automatic and monotonous. We guessed what kinds of lives our cadavers had, their first names and how they died. What jobs they had. Our imaginations and conversations wandered. We pondered our own mortality.
There were the exams that lasted an eternity. Small pins put into tiny structures throughout with questions on a sheet. "If this nerve were severed, name all the functions of the hand which would be lost." Two minutes per station, then "switch!" One girl fainted. The lab assistants were Cornell University vet students. This meant our questions about muscles or nerves were often greeted with, "In the horse, this muscle does this, and in the bird, this muscle does this … ." They unintentionally left us feeling only worse about our knowledge.
On the last day of class we had a memorial service of sorts and learned the real names, occupations, age and cause of death of our cadavers. The names that we gave our bodies are the ones which stay with us — Pat, Rosie, Herb, Bernie. Rosie, who had suffered a stroke, which explained why the muscles on one side of her body were smaller in mass than the other. Bernie, who had corn in his esophagus at time of death; he had suffered a heart attack during a meal. Herb, who had black lungs from years of smoking. We learned small bits of their life stories.
It’s been 16 years since college, and I've been back in Kodiak living and working as a physical therapist. Standing on the edge of the ocean cliffs in Fort Abercrombie, I watch the rough seas on a walk after work. Being on those turbulent waves in a fishing boat and scrubbing sea lice out of metal bait containers isn't a requirement of my being now, as it was then. My father passed away in high school and I no longer am on fishing boats. But the ocean is forever a part of my soul.
The people who entrusted their bodies with us — it was an amazing, profound gift. Now I understand why Dr. Beattie was so strict. These were generous souls who gave their bodies to further the knowledge of science.
The summer of gross anatomy was about far more than just gross anatomy. Our professors wanted us to learn the science from the cadavers, but what has really stayed with us was the art and journey of the dissection experience.
In this way, the lives of our cadavers and the gift of their bodies to science will forever be a part of our life stories.
Kodiak resident Zoya Saltonstall is a mother of two and a physical therapist. She loves black labs and chocolate.