Career Journal: Entry #8: Arms and Legs

February 18, 2014

Today was the weirdest day I’ve had yet in my Anatomy class.

We were introduced to the prosection lab.

I am not sure I can entirely articulate exactly what the prosection lab made me feel, but I’ll do my best and you can probably use your imagination to put yourself in my shoes and take a jab at understanding.

First things first, I like to observe my surroundings whenever I am introduced to some place new. While the lab assistant talked about the rules, I kept one ear on him and another ear taking in this new place I’d be learning in:

The things we would be using for the muscles unit were on the counter. There was a rotator cuff in a kitchen Tupperware container (it literally was a brand name kitchenware container, and when I noticed that, I realized that many things in that room were stored in those containers). There was an elongate box that supposedly contained two human legs (from different individuals from pelvis to toe). There were two boxes that each contained two human arms, so four total (from different individuals, from scapula to fingers). And finally, there was in a large, clear container, with a cheese cloth draped over it (all of the limbs were draped as well), lay a severed head of an elderly man on his side, face directed toward the center of the room where we all stood.

In the glass cabinets above the counters, I saw containers (many of which were the Tupperware ones I described above) labeled “male reproductive” with many goopy looking penises inside, “cirrhotic liver,” “kidney,” “pacemaker heart,” “brain,” “Gabe’s brain” (I did not ask why Gabe was able to have his brain labeled but the other ones were only identifiable by a number), “female reproductive,” “digestive tract,” filled with a bunch of the classic looking elongate intestines one might see in disturbing scenes in Halloween movies, smoker’s lung, and an emphysema lung.

I stood there staring at all of this not really feeling anything but overwhelmed. It was not really anything different than the feeling of being overwhelmed on Christmas morning or when given too many projects at work to complete in the amount of time given. It was simply a common feeling we all experience, but what made it unique was what caused me to feel in such a manner. I was standing in a room with body parts, body parts that were severed, exposed to the room, meant to be handled and touched, all around me.

For a split second, when this occurred in my mind, I considered giving into a sudden panic that had arisen in my chest.

That was quickly countered by a sudden calm that I forced upon myself.

Just following that calm was a sense of emotional reasoning, if I may take the liberty of using such a contradictory set of terms. I reasoned that I was standing safely within of a classroom setting amongst parts donated to the cause of science by the individuals who they belonged to. This was, of course, a reasoning that necessarily took place to reassure my mind with its wandering imagination that I was not standing in a room under a different set of circumstances that might otherwise lead me to standing amidst body parts such as a violent crime scene, the location of a bomb during a war, or in the lab of some mad person who was about to chop me into pieces too. I reasoned that I was standing in a room full of severed limbs, heads, brains, and hearts for the purpose of education with the consent of the individuals and in a manner that was socially acceptable in our society, probably the only context in which it would be appropriate to be standing in such a room so casually.

I fought to tell myself that it was okay to be calm in this setting, as follows from my rationale above. I must say, though, that throughout the day, I had to continually repeat the above line of thinking in order to pacify the panic that would rise intermittently when I encountered uncomfortable situations, such as the tissue of some limb incidentally making contact with my bare skin, when I found myself holding the hand attached to the arm in order to reposition it for the classmates studying with me so we could better visually access various muscles, when I lifted the cheese cloth of the severed head, trying to get myself desensitized to it before I actually lift it out of the container and examine it later this week, or when I was lifting the lid on the leg box and the foot of one leg was resting on the genitals attached to the other leg.

“Calm,” I repeatedly told myself. The only time I ever, for a moment, gave into the panic that set in and gave a physically noticeable reaction was when I first lifted the lid of the leg box and the foot of one leg was there resting on the genitals attached to the pelvis of the leg beside it. “Oh geeze!” I yelped, jumping back from the counter and letting the lid fall back onto the box with a clatter. After a moment I returned, lifted it the lid, swallowed hard, and repeated my mantra for the day: “Calm,” as I assisted my classmate on lifting the leg onto a tray and carry it across the room for examination.

I saw unique things that I will probably never see again (outside of a potential clinical setting in a theoretical career): I saw a knee replacement inside of one of the legs. It was much shinier and more mechanical-looking than I had expected it to be. I saw a unique device I did not even know existed before today: a penis enhancer. Yes. You read that correctly. There were male genitals attached to the pelvis of one leg, and inside of the testes was a small, plastic pump with fluid and air inside. The plastic hand pump (it resembled the squeaker of a dog toy) was a slender plastic tube that led to the shaft of the penis itself, which connected to a firm, flexible, oblong plastic device, that presumably would then be filled with air (or fluid, I’m not sure if the fluid I saw in it was leftovers of the embalming fluids) to enhance sexual performance. To my great embarrassment, I had no idea what that device was, and I thought it was installed post-mortem in order to keep the genitals from shriveling for the purposes of education. It was to keep it from shriveling, alright, but not in death. I cautiously approached the tutor, trying to keep a professional looking face in open lab tonight and requested she help me to identify an unknown device attached to the male external genitalia. She, also trying to keep a professional demeanor, explained to me what it was. A conservative woman, she hid her embarrassment well, and she then proceeded to save me from humiliation at my lack of knowledge by explaining the first time she had ever seen one of these. As she explained it, when she took Anatomy, a cadaver came in with one of these devices, only it was when the “technology” had first come out, and so it was large, and as rigid as a PVC pipe. She explained that it literally made his penis as big around as her first and as long as about mid-way down the thigh and that technology had certainly advanced since that time. “Can you imagine trying to walk around with that thing between your legs?” She exclaimed, referencing the cadaver she had seen when she was taking this very same class. “That poor man must have been so uncomfortable!”

On a slightly different note (and a little less visually disturbing than the images I’ve probably caused to arise in your mind at this point), this class has been triggering many philosophical questions to arise in my mind. They are mostly mental conversations I have with myself about the brevity of life, life (what makes one truly alive vs. simply having a beating heart), the presence of a soul, eternity, the complex design of the body that seems to be indicative of a greater Mind creating it (as opposed to evolving), the unity throughout all of creation that is woven together with the common denominator of DNA, the processes of aging and the effects of aging on the human body, what happens during the dying process, whether or not two human gametes uniting to form a fetus is uniting and forming a person or if personhood develops later in the form of a soul and when that moment occurs and thoughts surrounding abortion, the fact that we are all going to die, the fact that the fact that we are all going to die feels unfair, the fact that I can be aware of myself, my thoughts, and how others might perceive me, and finally, the question of making my muscles move, how I can stare at a body part and order it verbally to move and yet it does not move based merely off of my verbal or even my mental command, but that a much more passive, less conscious thought can cause my finger or for that matter, my entirely limb to move in a controlled and appropriate manner.

The last thing I’ll mention in my journal update here is more personally reflective. When I was a child, I thought, “I’ll be a teacher one day,” and I had this vision of myself standing in front of a classroom of children teaching them to spell. Then I thought, “No, I’ll be a nurse one day.” With that statement came a vision of me putting an IV into a patient’s arm in a hospital room. With neither of those visions came the journey, only a single moment in the end product. It wasn’t until more recent times that I suddenly realized how absolutely absurd that is. One day, when I am putting an IV line in somebody’s arm, will I think, “Here I am, I’ve made it to my goal. Now I will eternally put IV lines in because that is the vision I had,”? No, I certainly hope not. That is why it is absurd.

I never envisioned the journey both before and after that moment in time in my imaginary goal for myself. I never ever envisioned standing in a lab like I was today, handling limbs. I guess I always pictured nurses as only knowing the parts of the human body they needed to know, like the location of the vein for that imaginary IV or what goes on physiologically in the case of a wound that one is giving care to. I never really imagined struggling through an Anatomy class at such a fast pace, or even what I accomplished this summer, completing my CNA/Home Health Aide program and working in various clinical settings with patients wiping bottoms, giving showers, and helping them with bed-bound exercises. I never envisioned myself in college. For that matter my visions for my life in general have largely omitted the journey.

For example, I always envisioned myself with a husband, a home, and children, but never the process it would take for me to get there: the dating, the heartbreak, the joy, the commitment, the sacrifice, and the financial issues that accompany those aspects of life, the logistics, or even the day to day routine. I didn’t envision good times or bad times, just a single moment in time where my husband comes home, kisses me on the cheek, and says hello to our two (at one point I was crazy enough to dream of four) children and they tell him about their days while I get dinner on the table and send him a wink when he looks up at me for just a moment.

I never thought that a single Anatomy class could change so much about how I view myself, my life, the lives of others, my career, everything in less than three weeks. It has though, and I am both pleased and slightly troubled by it.

This last weekend I was jumping on a large trampoline that my boyfriend and I set up in our dojo for filming a YouTube video we plan to post soon. New mirrors had just been installed recently in some elevated windows, and I watched myself jumping and was suddenly disturbed by the sudden “x-ray vision” this Anatomy class has so graciously bestowed upon me.

Before I elaborate on that thought, I feel it would be appropriate for me to explain that ever since I had my heart surgery (which, if you ever read that article, mentioned that I had Wolfe-Parkinson-White Syndrome and my heart, during its episodes, beat 365 bpm and had to be chemically restarted twice before I had a corrective surgery) when I place my hand on my chest to feel my normal heart beats, I automatically recoil and want to remove my hand from my chest. The nearest thing I might equate it to is the uneasy/repulsed feeling one gets when they see another person vomit. To me, feeling my own heart beat has become very disturbing. I’m not sure if it is memories of my episodes or simply the fact that due to my heart condition, I’m very aware of the heart structure, how it works, what it is actually happening when it is beating or what. I do know, though, that it has lost the charm it once had as this funny little thump inside my chest.

So when I was jumping on the trampoline, it became suddenly very creepy too look at my reflection in the mirror as I jumped. I watched my muscles in my legs contract as I both jumped and landed, looked at the structure of my knee (which I’ve been studying extensively this class), and in that moment when I knew exactly what was going on inside of me as I jumped and landed, I verbally exclaimed, “Oh, ew…” and stopped jumping, stared at my reflection, and then turned around and jumped facing the opposite direction. It was the same feeling I get when I feel my own heartbeat. I knew the shape of the tibia in my leg, the ligaments that stabilized my knee joint, how my femur articulates with my patella, where the muscles are located in my legs, and the whole thing became a little strange to me. I see the world differently now.

“I’m fat,” has taken on a whole new meaning. “My butt is too big.” “My hips are too wide.” Those comments suddenly all seem so superficial and pointless because they are all aesthetics. What is the fat doing to you? Where is it located? How can it be burned? What caused it? What other parts of your body have those dietary choices affected? Is there fat around your heart? Is your butt big because of muscle or because of fat? Are your hips wide because of your pelvic structure that is based purely on genetics or because you are consuming too many calories and not exercising enough?

Everything has changed because of Anatomy. Everything.

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