Fresh Frozen Person

I have been stuck, unable to add to this blog because I must write about this experience before I can move on to others, but its essence keeps escaping me, and its implications for my work are tremendous – fundamentally disturbing and exciting.

For the first time, I have been present for a dissection of a so-called ‘fresh tissue’ cadaver, which is essentially a fresh frozen person.  The glib comparison is the difference between tinned peas and fresh frozen peas – but this undersells the impact. Under the direction of Todd Garcia and the Laboratories of Anatomical Enlightenment in Denver, a group of us explored the Anatomy Trains with an unembalmed cadaver in June of this year.

The evidence of this exploration is featured or will appear elsewhere on this site; my purpose here is just to report the subjective experience.

I am accustomed to handling an embalmed cadaver, and can quite calmly explore the most intimate innards of another person in this state.  (Though I am not as sanguine about looking at my own blood – nearly passed out when I looked into my own finger that I attempted to chop off while making kindling in the dark – see the entry ‘Hatchet’ in Jan, 2007).  ‘Victoria’ (so we named her, and we felt quite close to her by the end) landed somewhere between these two experiences, and the juxtaposition was fundamentally disturbing.

A common word for embalmed tissue is ‘fixed’, and the precise difference in Victoria was she was unfixed.  Joints moved – a little sluggishly since she was constantly kept very cold, but they moved through the normal range.  The skin was supple, and moved on the underlying tissues.  With the blood present, her skin had normal hues, and, though incisions would not bleed like surgical ones, blood was present, and would pool under her sometimes.  Cutting through the skin was more rubbery and resilient than embalmed tissue, and the underlying muscles, fat, and fascia had normal coloring and normal responsiveness.

But oh, how much responsiveness there was!  Pull on the tissue – any tissue! – and an ‘anatomy train’ appears.  Take any tissue off the body and put it under the microscope Eric Root brought, and watch the structure that was evident on the body disappear into amorphous vacuoles and bubbles.  Put a new stretch on the tissue, and new structure appears – complete with lined up fibers and resistance.

Jeff Linn warned me against conflating anatomy with structure.  At the time, I dismissed the warning – anatomy is to structure what money is to love – maybe you can’t buy it, but it doesn’t hurt the process either.  Anatomy may not be structure, I thought, but it sure is a useful way in.

I still believe that, and will continue to insist that my students know their anatomy, but clearly structure is something that only occurs in context of the spatial tensegrity of the body.  In other words, you need the tensional and compressional forces to make the fascia / myofascia organize.  (Having written this, I say ‘of course, that’s what we’ve been saying all along, but to see it in action is a different experience.)

We were attempting to dissect out myofascial continuities, and the result were gloppy messes that looked (and by Friday were starting to smell) like flank steak.  Removed embalmed specimens are fairly stiff and could be draped over the classroom skeletons we use to photograph them.  The ‘real’ Anatomy Trains were so gloopy that they would immediately ooze off the skeleton unless held there with pins or hands.

The naturalness of the tissue, and its disconcerting lack of structure when removed from the body were bad enough, but the constant lifting of Victoria in and out of the freezer (under the knees and under the shoulders) emphasized her humanity, and the feeling of being somewhere between Hannibal Lector and Jeffrey Daumer persisted, actually growing through the week as the butcher-shop odor surpassed the formalin as a smell to be reckoned with.  Although it was a fantastic learning experience, this encounter with death – even in the same situation as many I have done before – a lab, the coats, the scalpels – was a quantum leap closer, and the hollow voice that says, “This way all men pass – even you, even your children” boomed hollow in my mind’s ear.

Many thanks to Todd, the staff, and all the students, but most of all to Victoria, who gave us such a gift.

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