The Sagittal Cut (part II) Getting to know the donors

Our donor in my biased opinion, landed in the best place one could ask for if you were to have a voice with which to do so. In Gil’s lab, the gift of body donation is emphasized often. We have an obligation to look at every aspect and wring out as much learning and discovery as we can. My group affectionately referred to our form as “Sir”, and days into the week, we were given a bit of his story: he had inhabited this body for 89 years before passing it on to us to explore. No irony for us to find out that “Sir” had been an elementary school teacher. This was the first time for me that we were given more than the age of death and the recorded cause. You can imagine the “ooooos”, the outpouring of love and acknowledged coincidence of how we called him Sir.

While we do remain quite clinical in the lab, the person, their life and personality are very close to us. We have no information, but the body tells a story. Well, we like to think it does and theorize a lot about why things look the way they do. We know these are theories but human dissection in many ways is self-dissection. When you explore something as deeply as this, it penetrates every cell. We want the donor to be a person, and we want to know them.

Day one in the lab consists of getting to know our lab mates, meeting the donors, choosing and naming one, and finally beginning our work.
Our bodies are comprised of many layers and in Gil’s lab, we look at one layer at a time.

Day one is reflecting the skin, which means we expose the underside of this elastic covering and reveal the superficial fascia that lays below. In the layer of the superficial fascia, you will find capillaries, nerves, lymphatic vessels and nodes. The face is unique in that this layer also houses the muscles of expression. These muscles have no boney attachment and are too thin to palpate but they are responsible for the unique lines and character of our wrinkles as we age. I loved exploring the facial muscles. I learned the names of the muscles as they emerged and began to look differently at the faces around me that were so animated, as together we uncovered the fatty layer of superficial fascia. Gil talks about this being the sensual, emotional and under appreciated layer. All kinds of inspiring conversations begin during this phase of dissection.

The superficial fascia (or adipose) layer we are told, is undervalued and under appreciated in medical labs. It is only seen as “fat” and the sooner it’s out of the way, the better. I have not participated in any dissection other than Gil’s, so I can only comment on this to say that when I supervise lab visits for the massage students (where the dissection is already done), there is no adipose on those bodies. I have seen enough bodies to know that its absence is not because it did not exist.

Once the superficial fascia is removed, skeletal muscle is revealed. This is an exciting stage of dissection. We get to see the muscles as they emerge. These are structures we can recognize and name, but seeing them wrap around the bones is something a textbook can never accurately reveal on a flat page. It’s a bit like going to the monuments in the countries of the world you have only seen in pictures. They look exactly like the photos, yet are not even close to what you experience.

The head, again is unique because it changes form entirely once it’s fatty layer is removed. Because there are only a few muscles in the face region that attach to bone, the skull is fully exposed along with the strong muscles of the jaw and neck.

I don’t know about you, but when I look at a skull, I find it very difficult to see a face. Since this dissection, I now look at faces differently. I see how evidence of a person’s personality shows up through permanent lines in the skin of the face as we age. I see how the strength of the masseter muscle defines a persons jaw. I see how thick and layered the muscles of the neck are organized to hold the weight of the head, and how these have the potential to change based on our habitual posture.

This dissection has only just begun… The donors, while only a small group of us get to know them intimately, continue to share their gift through our telling and re-telling of what we came to know of them. We can never know how far reaching that may be.