I just finished a weekend of learning at the Northwestern Health Sciences Massage Symposium. A highlight of the symposium is an opportunity to spend 30 minutes in their prestigious cadaver lab over the lunch hour. So, yes it was billed as Lunch and Cadavers. Stop reading if you are easily grossed out.
Into the Cadaver Lab
Outside the lab I was informed by the experienced attendees that I might want to put some Vick’s VapoRub under my nose to keep out the smell of formaldehyde. Thankfully, I was at a massage symposium and there were samples of smelly unguents to be had around every corner. I chose a packet of China Balm to be my olfactory friend. The smell was nothing compared to the existential unease that came over me.
For the most part, the bodies were mid-dissection. The skin was mostly removed and the exposed muscles were dry to the point of looking like beef jerky. That was less problematic for me than the intact body parts that gave hints of the life once lived.
For example, while the size of the femoral artery was fascinating to see I couldn’t help but notice the chipped blue nail polish on the intact, but wrinkled, toes of the donor. My vivid imagination overtook my scientific mind. I began playing out my own personal morgue scene from one of those murder mystery shows I love so much. Surely, she must have painted those toes about three weeks prior to her death but never had a chance to remove or re-apply the nail polish. So sad.
Deep breath, April. Stay focused on the anatomy!!!
We moved on to the second cadaver. While my colleagues were eagerly grabbing at the glutes to get a better look, I was focused on the short curly hair of the donor; not to mention its missing face. As everyone “oohed” and “aahed” over the the third cadaver I was mesmerized by its intact ears and hands. They looked like something out of a mad scientist’s lab in a classic horror film. The pacemaker cords sprouting out of another donor’s chest didn’t bother me as much as the detail of the coarse hairs growing out of his ears. I couldn’t not create stories in my mind about these people. After only ten minutes I was the first to leave the lab.
The other attendees were mostly graduates of the Northwestern Health Sciences massage program so perhaps they were more accustomed to an academic morgue. The instructors in the lab were way more interested in teaching anatomy than helping me process my encounter with death. Perhaps she was putting on a brave face for me but my fellow therapist said bluntly, “It’s no big deal, you get used to it.” The more I write this I realize I was less put off by the lab but more so by the insensitivity of my fellow massage therapists.
Allow Me to Process
Sadly some of my former clients have passed away. I have experienced that strange feeling of knowing that someone who was once pulsing and alive under my hands is no longer with us. There is a certain intimacy between my clients and me. I have a great respect for the vulnerability they bring into my room. It is always sad when I hear that someone I once worked with is gone. Let me just take this moment to say “thank you” into the great beyond to all those who have shared sessions with me and have crossed over.
Maybe next year will be the year that I put my imagination aside and join the cult of dissecting the dead. But this was destined to be the year where I humbly observed the fragile mortality of my fellow human beings. For now I will appreciate learning through palpating living breathing humans!