This blog is about my experience doing a human cadaver dissection. I will not go into graphic detail, nor will I violate any rules of privacy or common decency. That said, if the idea is not ok for you, please stop reading now.
So having read the trigger warning, you have a good idea what’s coming up, right?
I was humbled, touched, excited, challenged. I was brought face to face with my respect and love for this human body we get to inhabit. I spent five days in intimate contact with death, honoured by the opportunity to learn thanks to a woman who donated her body for science.
The journey started about a year ago when Tania Serrano, one of my lovely colleaugues at Boomerang, said she was going to do this course. It had been on my radar, and I know several people who have done it. They all said it was life-changing, so when Tania asked if I would go with her I was all over it!
Tom Myers has been studying and teaching about fascia and its’ effects within the body since the early 1990’s. Fascia is the connective tissue network that runs all through our bodies, creating continuity, structure, give and glide.It is so ever-present that if you were to take away all the bits that are NOT fascia you would still look like you! Anatomy Trains is based on Tom’s concept that there are several continous fascial lines that travel, uninterrupted, through the body, and how that affects both movement and body work.
There is a catch to this business of studying the fascia, though. The process of preserving a cadaver destroys it. That means that the donor bodies that we work with are not preserved. The tissues are all present and we can see the fascia in all its glory. Each donor was fully informed of the process and signed paperwork affirming their choice to donate.
That means you get exactly 5 days to work before the natural processes are too far advanced and the body (every single bit of tissue is included) is returned to the family for cremation and a respectful, loving burial.
We arrived for our five day course to meet up with the other participants. There were 54 of us arriving from China, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Switzerland, Poland, Canada (yay Canadians!) and of course the US. I’m pretty sure I’m missing at least a couple of other countries!
Our compatriots practice:
- strength and conditioning
- kettlebell training
- Structural Integration
- registered massage therapy
- myofascial release therapy
- dance therapy
- speech and vocal coaching for performers
- and a massage therapist turned Life Science student in her final year studying cellular biology (and again, I’m sure I’m missing something).
This is a VERY smart group of people and I am honoured to have learned with and from them!
Once we introduced ourselves and Todd and Tom covered the basics of parking, lunch trucks, lab etiquette and so on, we were ready to get to it.
We revealed the eight cadavers to be our learning models for the week. We walked around the room, accustoming ourselves to the experience of looking at those who had passed away, leaving their bodies for us to learn from. We chose one that we wanted to stick with for the week, and created our groups of 6 or 7 people per table.
The first thing Todd asked us to do was to name our model. Ruby was already taken (what are the odds that two groups would choose the same name??) so we named her Maude.
We weren’t given any details about the donors, to preserve their privacy. We don’t know how exactly old Maude was, or why she died, but she certainly had lived for a good long time. All the donors were elderly, and that is normally the case.
And thus began one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life.
Over the course of the week we moved down through the layers from skin to bone, and that’s about all I’m going to say about that for this post. If you’re worried I’m going to get really gross, don’t fret!
So what did I learn? A lot.
I learned that dissection is a skill and that I need to work on it.
I learned that dissection is hard physical work! Our backs got sore. I still have a twang in my left shoulder, mostly because it took me a while to figure out how to hold the hemostats properly. They are like scissors but not sharp. They grip tissue and you hold them upside down from the way you hold regular scissors. Every time I got it right I would put them down to adjust something and the next thing I knew my shoudlers would be up around my ears and I was backwards AGAIN!
I am so grateful to Gina Tacconi-Moore and Lauri Nemetz. Envision a group of 54 people, many of whom have never dissected anything before, much less a human cadaver. Remember the part above about how it’s a skill? These two made it possible to get through the week! I wondered before we arrived about whether it was a sink or swim process or whether there would be someone to help us out. Gina and Lauri were the hands-on helpers who moved around the lab, going from table to table. They showed us how to hold the damn hemostats (over and over for me), how to reflect the various layers of tissue, how to identify the tissues we were looking at, how to choose the next project. When some people had a profound emotional response to this process along the way, these cool women supported and brought them back into the positive benefits of the experience.
If you ever go and take this course, I hope both of them are there for you!
I learned that dissection is fascinating.
I had been concerned before we arrived that I would be too sensitive, too squeamish or too emotional to manage the process. In fact, I got so absorbed in the task at hand that I would forget the greater context. I would look up to stretch and suddenly re-connect to the fact that I was working on a small part of a greater whole, and that greater whole was a human cadaver.
I learned that I don’t know very much and there is so much more out there!
I can look at diagrams in a book, or watch a client moving and identify the muscles at play. It’s very different when I am looking right at the tissues and seeing just how intricately related they are! I have been saying for years that it’s all connected, that the muscles flow into one another and that the source of a discomfort may be far from the discomfort itself… but now I really GET it. To see the fascia and fibres of the lats, the rhomboids, the serratus anterior and the upper obliques all flowing into and out of each other with only the slightest of separations was so revealing!
I learned that the consequences of moving or not moving are abundantly clear in all the layers of the body.
Please move. Move big, move small, move fast, move slow. Move for fun, move for strength, for flexibility and for health. Move because you will benefit from it all your days, and your later life will be way more entertaining if you stay in motion!
If you add only one thing to your movement repertoire, make it getting your arms up overhead.
We do very little of this in our daily lives. Hanging is a big part of the Nutritious Movement and Restorative Exercise plan, and I will be super focused on it because now I’ve SEEN it with my own eyes. The way the tissues of the shoulders and arms reflect how they did or didn’t move is not limited to those anatomical structures! You can see the effects through the chest wall, the heart and lungs and the way they sit in the pericardium, the effects through the viscera and all the way down to the hips.
Get your arms up!
Reach for things, hang from things. Start with your feet on the ground and progress (slowly and responsibly please!!) to fully loaded hanging. When you’ve got that all worked out, get into brachiating. What’s that you ask? It’s swinging from one hand hold to another, like kids in the playground, or monkeys in the trees! We have always worked on this in class, but you can bet your bottom dollar we’re going to be doing more of it now! The next post is going to be all over this hanging stuff, but here’s a preview. I wrote this one last spring and it’s all about the health benefits of a hanging, climbing practice!
Dissection is a team effort.
Tania and were on the same team along with Wojtek, Jackie, Alex and Judy. We were helped along the way, as I mentioned, by Gina and Lauri. Tom and Todd come by and offered their experience and assistance. We learned from each other, helped each other and shared the tasks and the weight both physically and emotionally. Below is a picture of Team Maude and Gina after the end of the last day. Look at those smiles!!
GO TEAM MAUDE!
At the end of the week, Tom talked to us all as a group. He read a couple of poems and spoke about the profound impact this course has on people, sometimes right away and sometimes over the course of months or even years. I have been working on this post, talking and thinking about the deeper meaning of this week ever since I got back.
This is not my final word on this experience. I am not yet able to fully articulate how it has affected me and how it will change me and my work. There will be another post, there will be some deep delving into what it means to see inside a human body. My awareness of the intricacies of it all, is still evolving and I will share that journey as I figure out where I’m going and how I’m going to get there!
We’ll talk soon, I promise!
I’m the owner of Boomerang Pilates and creator of the Move SMART program. I teach teachers how to incorporate sustainable movement and authentic teaching in their classes.