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Body of Knowledge

Written by Amanda Schlenker '08

Amanda Schlenker '08

On Wednesday, June 23, at exactly 7:53 a.m., I took my seat in the second row of a giant lecture hall, anxiously awaiting the start of the human anatomy orientation. At 8:00 a.m., Jeff Houck, associate professor of physical therapy, stood in front of the auditorium with a welcoming smile and a stack of syllabi in his arms.

Thus began my summer in Rochester, New York, as a rising senior in the occupational therapy program at Ithaca College. Over the course of the next 10 weeks, I would spend a minimum of six hours per week in the laboratory on the fifth floor of the University of Rochester Medical Center, dissecting a human cadaver.

During that first hour, Professor Houck explained the many aspects of the class, including the laboratory portion. “There are about 130 of you in the class,” he said, pausing to look at us. “I predict there will be at least five who pass out, throw up, or need to leave the lab for air in these first few days.”

I don’t know whether this estimate turned out to be correct, but I am proud to say that I was not one of those students. I will admit that walking into the lab for the first time and seeing 18 bodies on 18 metal tables covered in 18 white sheets was a shock to behold, even after Professor Houck’s detailed description of what to expect. I also discovered that no matter how many times I washed my hospital scrubs, the smell of the lab was there to stay.

I’ll never forget my first incision. Cloaked in a pale yellow smock and bright blue rubber gloves, I clenched my scalpel and peered over the back of an elderly woman lying face down on lab table number 13. As I looked at the pale cadaver before me -- whom I now call Nana -- I wondered what kind of life she had led, if she had a husband or children, and what her job had been. I soon realized that the only way I could perform the task at hand was to distance myself from the reality that this body had once led a complete life before being donated to benefit students.

As the weeks went on and my stomach became accustomed to the sight and smell of partially dissected cadavers, I adjusted to the reality of the situation. I also developed a new and terrific appreciation for the perfection of the human body and the wonderful gift that Nana had given to me and my classmates. She donated her body so that we could learn in a way that no textbook could ever teach us. For this I am truly grateful.

Human anatomy is one of the most intense experiences in Ithaca’s occupational therapy program, requiring an average of 20–30 hours per week outside of class for studying and preparation. I have taken anatomy and physiology courses in the past, but being in the lab brought my understanding of anatomy to a whole new level. Seeing, touching, and. manipulating every aspect of the human body provided a perspective that can’t be achieved any other way. Holding a nerve between my fingers, touching the site on bone where a muscle attaches, and hooking a major artery with my probe astounded me. I remember looking at the brachial plexus -- the complex system of nerves that runs through your arms -- and being certain that only God could have been behind this most detailed design. 

The perfection and intricacy of each human body and how it functions are things that we take for granted every day. I was struck by how similar we all are under the skin, and yet our cadavers revealed many startling differences we could learn from as well. For instance, I felt the little nodules of lung cancer on my cadaver’s right lung (the cause of Nana’s death). During a knee joint dissection, I observed the rough surface of leg bones affected by osteoarthritis. Some of the cadavers had artificial parts that were discovered as we worked through our dissections. One body had a metal rod replacing the humerus bone found in the upper arm, and another dissection revealed a complete knee replacement!

Halfway through the course we began the unit on the thorax, or chest cavity. It was my job to remove the heart from the body. I still cannot believe that as an undergraduate, I did something that -- aside from open heart surgeons -- few people would ever have the chance to do. A profound feeling came over me as I held one of the body’s most vital organs in the palm of my hand.

As final exams approached, the class took part in the annual tradition of holding a memorial service to show our sincere appreciation for the donors who had so graciously given their bodies for the benefit of our education. Before finals we put down our books and gathered outside the school for a student-led service to honor and thank the 18 donors. We planted a tree and laid 18 flowers beneath it in memory of our cadavers. Several students provided musical offerings, prayers, and heartfelt words of reflection.

On Wednesday, August 1, at 11:18 a.m., I handed in my final exam and left the University of Rochester Medical Center for the last time. Not only had I finished and passed the course, but I had truly completed an experience of a lifetime.



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