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  • What I Learned by Taking a Dissection Class

    Back in July I wrote about my rationale and excitement for taking a week off to take a dissection class this October. (Click here to read it, if you haven’t already.) I was gone from Sunday October 6 through Sunday October 13, so I’ve been back just over a week now. I promised to tell you about the highlights, minus gory details, when I got back, so here I am trying to collect my thoughts into something coherent enough to publish.

    What a Week!

    First off, let me say that my week-long dissection class was amazing, awe-inspiring, surprisingly emotional, mentally and physically exhausting, and chock full of surprises. Annndddd… I can’t wait to be able to take another one!

    Second, lemme just say that Colorado Springs has some absolutely beautiful scenery like Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods. Next time, I’m going to stay a couple extra days so I can spend time walking the trails and climbing the “hills.” I hear there are fantastic homemade donuts at or near the top of one of the mountain peaks, or maybe it was on a plateau partway up. Either way, I view fresh mountain top donuts the way I view fresh orchard donuts in apple season… the first one has no fat, sugar, or calories, so I’m definitely gonna be getting me one of those next time as well.

    Lessons Learned

    Oh my god, I learned sooo much that if I don’t set some limits I might never finish this. If I’m honest some of what I learned is deeply personal to my emotional and mental self so imma keep that to myself. Also, some of it would just be gross to most of you and I promised no gore. So, here are the top 10 things I learned, that I think might also be interesting to you.

    1. Scars don’t look the way you think they will under the surface – You’d think that the thick, uneven areas of your scars are going to be thick and uneven all the way through, but that’s not the case at all. Some layers, like the adipose and superficial fascia just under the skin, can have a surprising lack of scar tissue, no matter how thick and uneven it is on the surface. When one layer transitions to the next, scars will often spread out instead of staying a nice distinct line through the body.
    2. Tattoos don’t look the way you think they will under the surface either – Some of them are visible on the superficial fascia after you’ve removed the skin, some go through to the underside of the skin but no further, and some only penetrate the epidermis or the outer layer of skin. Also, a tattoo that’s faded on the surface is likely just as bright as the day you got it when viewed from the underside.
    3. One of your abdominal muscles (transversus abdominis) intertwines its fibers with the fibers of your diaphragm – They don’t just attach to the same place like the anatomy books show, the fibers of these two muscles actually enmesh with one another. This means that this muscle, which runs horizontal on either side of your abdomen, is more instrumental in your breathing than you likely thought. So it’s even more important to let your belly expand when you’re breathing because if this muscle doesn’t do it’s thing fully, it can inhibit your diaphragm from fully functioning as well.
    4. Your organs might not be in the exact place that the anatomy books show – They might be higher, lower, farther left/right, or rotated from their “normal” position. There were two cadavers in my class and both of them (Both!) had intestines that were rotated in such a way that the ascending colon didn’t ascend (i.e. go straight up the right side) and the transverse colon didn’t go straight across the top of the abdomen. Instead, they looked more like a hill with the each one moving diagonally through the body.
    5. Your organs might not be the same size or shape as shown in the anatomy books – They might be bigger or smaller than they’re “supposed to be.” One of our cadavers had a multi-lobed lived – instead of the normal 2 lobes, it had lots of small and medium sized lobes. It looked like nothing any of us had ever seen, but it didn’t show any sign of disease… not that any of us were doctors, but the tissue looked healthy and all the ducts and vessels were present connecting it to all the things it needed to be connected to.
    6. Your muscles aren’t as clearly defined as anatomy drawings would have you believe – Ok, some of them are very clearly defined. But some of them aren’t. And most of them aren’t lying in distinct, easily moveable bundles. Instead, they’re spread out on top of, or underneath, other muscles. Some of them are stuck to nearby muscles and connective tissue. Sometimes it just looks like a big jumble of indistinct muscle tissue.
    7. There’s a reason it feels so good to have your ears massaged and pulled (gently of course) – When you gently pull on the ears, the dura, which is a membrane that wraps around the brain, moves with them. If you’ve ever thought that ear massage felt a bit like your brain was also getting a massage, you’re not far off.
    8. The curves we humans are so fond of are all made of fat – Of course you know that breasts are formed primarily of fat and that fat is what gives them their pleasing size and shape. But did you know that your bum shape has nothing to do with the buttload (couldn’t help myself – SorryNotSorry) of muscle in each cheek. Despite anatomy books often depicting the gluteus maximus as rounded on the bottom, it’s not. It’s straight and flat across the bottom, so… the curve at the bottom of each cheek comes from fat. For that matter, so does the roundness and fullness of each cheek. Yes, there are a lot of muscles in each cheek, but many of them are so deep that you can’t even palpate them. Even the glorious gluteus maximus will leave you with a rather flat backside if there isn’t any fat on top of it.
    9. You can’t tell by looking at someone’s outside, what their insides are like – We have no idea what the people who once inhabited these bodies were like, but whatever we imagined from looking at them at the beginning of the first day was radically different from what we found.
      The male looked strong and healthy on the outside but inside had emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver. Aren’t people who have emphysema and cirrhosis weak and frail at the end of their life? Maybe not. Or maybe weak and strong are relative terms and this man was weak compared to his once healthy self.
    10. There are no answers, only more questions – As we explored our body in search of answers, we often found that one answer led to several more questions. Did the woman know that her liver was misshapen? Did it function optimally or only enough to get by? Did she know she had a tumor wrapping almost all the way around her windpipe? Did she know that it was wrapped around several other nearby structures as well. Did that have a noticeable impact on how any of the structures functioned? Did the tumor play any part in her death? Was her death caused by her collapsed lung? Was her collapsed lung caused by her emphysema or something else? See what I mean?

    This class took a different approach to dissection than is typically taught in universities or found in text books. Instead of dissecting systemically (to see all the structures of a specific body system) or regionally (to see all the structures in a given area), we dissected the body by layers. This gave us a whole new perspective on the human body and allowed us to view relationships between systems and regions that are normally cut through or ignored. It was a great way to increase our awe and reverence for the human form.