Yesterday I took eight of my anatomy and physiology students on a field trip to a cadaver lab. Good Samaritan Hospital in Lafayette, CO has been running the lab sessions for high school students for the last five or so years. My students got to spend four hours with an instructor leading them through a preserved human body. It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn about human anatomy, the medical field, and hopefully also about how incredible it is to be alive.
I do think my students learned a lot about anatomy, and I do think they have a new appreciation for medicine and for science. I was so proud of them – they struck a wonderful balance between respect for the person who donated their body and inquisitive nerdiness. But even as the “teacher” in the room, I still feel like I learned a lot! And I am deeply grateful I got the opportunity to go to a cadaver lab again.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in several cadaver labs over the course of my science career. When I was thirteen I visited the CSU lab. Later, when I was in high school, I got to see another cadaver. One of the surgeons in my town was pioneering a new surgical technique. In order to get it approved by the FDA, he performed the technique on a cadaver. Once he was done, he invited a group of students to dissect the cadaver with him. This was the first time I got to hold any of the human organs. It’s amazing how dense they are, and how tightly they all fit together in our thoracic cavity (chest) and abdomen.
I also got to see and hold dissected specimens of human brains when I was studying neuroscience in Uppsala, Sweden. That was a really cool experience. It’s just incredible to me that this tiny squishy thing is responsible for all of our thoughts!
Every single time I’ve been to a cadaver lab, I am in awe of the people who choose to donate their bodies to science. I am also in awe of people who choose to donate organs. These people give incredible gifts to science and to science education. I cannot be an organ or a blood donor, so I’m really grateful to people who can.
Yesterday was just as impactful and meaningful to me, for a slightly different reason. When I saw cadavers in middle and high school, my body was awesome. It did everything I asked it to do, it was strong, and it was healthy. Since then, I’ve had opportunity to realize exactly how fragile it can be.
When I was nineteen I had a blood clot from my right ankle to my diaphragm. This is a MASSIVE clot; most people who get clots in their legs have clots the size of a quarter. Add into the mix that I was young and fit, and the doctors were very confused by me. Turns out that I have a genetic defect called Factor V Leiden that increased my risk of clotting. (This is why I can’t donate.) It makes teaching genetics to my students really interesting because I can tell my story.
Clots in the veins of your legs are called deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. Sometimes you hear warnings against DVT on long flights, because sitting causes blood to pool in your feet and still blood is more likely to clot. When I had my DVT, I also had four pieces of the clot in my leg break away and travel to my lungs. These clots in the lungs are called pulmonary embolisms.
Clots are a problem because they deprive the tissue of the blood supply. The first thing that becomes a problem is a lack of oxygen. Tissue without oxygen quickly dies. Depending on where the clot is, it can be more or less dangerous. Some famously deadly places for clots are in the coronary arteries (which causes myocardial infarction or a heart attack) and in the brain (which causes a stroke). DVTs can be bad for you, but usually they’re very treatable. There are enough blood vessels in your legs that if one gets clogged up, usually another one can help out and the tissue still has a blood supply. Clots in the lungs, on the other hand, cause tissue damage and can, ultimately, cause death.
Now, I’m definitely not saying I’m a medical miracle. There are plenty of people who get pulmonary embolisms and live. But there are also plenty of people who get them and die. So I feel very, very lucky.
I had a surgery to clear out the clot from my leg and was in the ICU for two days on a medication that dissolved clots. In that process, the surgeon placed a small metal filter in my inferior vena cava near my kidneys to prevent any more clots from getting from my leg to my lungs. It was only last year, five and half years after the initial surgery, that the filter was removed. I still wear a compression sock to help with the circulation in my right leg, but other than that I have no on-going treatments.
I will say it again; I am very, very lucky. But I will also admit that when I’m buried under a mountain of paper and stressed and tired, it’s easy to forget that.
Yesterday our instructor passed around many of the organs from our cadaver so the students (and I) could get a closer look at them. As I was holding her lungs, the instructor was explaining pulmonary embolisms to my students. He detailed why they were so dangerous and what symptoms they caused. Pulmonary embolisms can cause varying levels of chest pain. I found myself nodding along – been there, done that.
And reflexively, I took a deep breath. I felt like I had been smacked with my own good fortune again. I was standing there, holding a pair of human lungs, feeling mine expand and relax, knowing that process hadn’t worked so well at one point. Breathing is a glorious feeling! And for me, yesterday, every single breath felt like a gift.
Take one of those really deep breaths. Feel how the cartilage in your ribs stretches to allow your lungs to expand. Feel your diaphragm drop and your sternum lift. You can’t feel the membrane around your lungs slide along the membrane on the inside of your ribs, but it does, every time. You can’t feel your alveoli expanding and your red blood cells exchanging gas molecules, but it’s happening.
We can’t spend every second glorying in the feeling of being alive. Our brains have to focus on a million other things. But I think it’s really important to acknowledge how incredibly cool our bodies are! They are so strong and resilient, and for the majority of us, they hardly ever fail. But at the same time, they are so delicately balanced and one mishap can affect the entire thing. The science is one window into appreciating it, but just feeling my breathing and my heartbeat is another way. I’m really glad I got to revisit this feeling.
My homework for you: How do you appreciate your body? What makes you feel alive?