Reflections after the first cadaver lab

“To help other people overcome their injuries.”

This mantra was accompanied by flushed faces, hidden trembling hands, and nervous chuckles as the majority of my peers told the class why they decided to pursue physical therapy as a career. Soon thereafter, this adage was lost as we dived into our studies, learning every bone, muscle, and organ. Focusing on the human body is a must for all healthcare professionals, and PTs especially must have a thorough and in-depth understanding of how the body works. Yet, at times the “human” aspect of the body is lost as students focus on bony tubercles and muscular striations.

It was with a mixture of anticipation, excitement, and a dash of apprehension that I walked into my first cadaver lab. Having never seen a corpse before, I was unsure what to expect, but at the same time I was looking forward to seeing everything I’d learned about in the classroom come to life (no pun intended). With formaldehyde seeping into my nostrils and sweat dampening my armpits I approached the dead body at my designated station. When the sheet was removed I was instantly overcome by two trains of thought that stayed with me for the remainder of the lab session.

My first thought was awe. Reality hit hard as it dawned on me that we all are in essence lumps of meat and bone like any other animal, yet we possess so much more intellect and conscience than that. Could this “thing” lying in front of me actually have moved at some point in time? As I stood there listening to the professors rattling off the landmarks that we needed to know, the circle of life closed and I realized that this is what we’ll all look like one day. Longevity is something we hope for but even living to a ripe old age will ultimately end in death.

It was at that moment that the importance of time dawned on me. This resource that allows us the joy of living is most often abused and wasted. We’re all headed in a certain inevitable direction and it’s up to us to properly utilize this precious commodity in the right way. Staring death in the eye made me realize how important every minute of every day is.

Walking from station to station while observing and feeling the eight bodies — all in various stages of dissection — I noticed some minor anatomical differences between the bodies. As I held a heart in the palm of my hand, I felt more than just a lump of muscle. I felt the stories, experiences, and emotions that had once coursed through this organ, and I listened to the whispers of the life it had seen. I heard about the life this heart had once led, and suddenly, the eight hearts in the room were all so similar, and yet so different, colored by their experiences.

As I held the liver of one cadaver and felt the psoas major of another, I thought of the patients that we as PTs will come in contact with on a daily basis. Will I approach treatment with the outlook of fixing their ailment, or will I look at them as people and the human beings that they are? In today’s healthcare industry it’s easy to get swept into treating specific issues and problems that arise. Stepping back and looking at the big picture is of paramount importance.

When a patient walks into my clinic and complains of shoulder pain, will I instinctively picture the muscles in the affected region and comprise a plan of treatment, or will I factor in the myriad other details and the lifestyle that shoulder pain could be attributed to? Ultimately, I believe that patients will achieve better outcomes when one looks at the patient as a person rather than a movement machine.

Avi Friedman is a physical therapy graduate student and can be reached on LinkedIn.

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