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Bringing Anatomy to Life in GCU’s Cadaver Lab

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By Audrey French
Dual Enrollment Student

Vivid descriptions of a cadaver are included in this article. Consider yourself forewarned.

I cannot believe I am doing this.

I stood outside the Grand Canyon University cadaver lab, overwhelmed by nerves. Why in the world did I sign up for a field trip where we would be viewing the anatomy of a complete (very dead) body? Whatever happened to peaceful field trips to the zoo and aquarium?

Before I could back out, we were escorted into a large, sterile classroom. There was a dead body in there somewhere. I glanced about and soon spotted a cadaver in the back corner. Another table sported an array of harvested organs.

My group was led over to the body. I stood by the dissection table, fighting desperately against woozy feelings. Outside the classroom, the host had instructed us to back away or sit down if we felt light headed. Another tour guide backed that up more strongly, “If you faint, we can’t just move you and pretend nothing ever happened. We have to call an ambulance.”

The threat of calling an ambulance will keep you on your feet. At first, I leaned against a nearby countertop (just in case). Later I moved closer to the dissection table and switched my weight from foot to foot–maybe if I kept moving my body would stay conscious. Your natural urge is to breathe deeply, but you don’t because the smell of the preservation chemicals is nauseating.

The cadaver itself is more fascinating than horrifying. As strange and heartless as this may sound, it did not look like a human any more. The skin was completely stripped away, making

all the organs and muscles visible. A layer of muscle covered the chest and abdomen. Our cadaver was female, had been in her nineties, and passed from intestinal cancer. At first, I had assumed the cadaver was male. The outside reproductive anatomy and face were completely covered, and the breasts had been fully removed. The only features that reminded me this body had held a human being were the hands and feet, which were still sporting finger and toe nails.

Someone asked about the age of the average person when they died and donated their body to research. The guide explained that most of the donors had been in their eighties and nineties, but once they had a man in his thirties who had been killed by cancer. From studying his body, they could see that he had been quite healthy and athletic apart from the cancer.

On our tour, the guide started by explaining the muscles in the legs. The muscles were all distinctly bundled together into groups which were attached to the knee by pale tendons. I found all the bones in the feet leading up to the toes intriguing. Feet have a surprising amount of bone.

After checking to make sure we weren’t ready to pass out, the guide removed the muscle covering the torso from a flap had already been cut. A whole new world was revealed. First, the guide pulled the lungs out of an incredibly deep chest cavity. He reminded us that the left lung is smaller than the right to make room for the heart. He showed us two strings running through the chest cavity. They were both nerves that connect to the vagus nerve in the brain. While most nerves are miniscule, these were obvious.

He moved to the abdomen and picked up the stomach. Since the stomach was completely empty, it was a translucent, very thin layer of tissue that was about the size of my hand. Then the guide showed us the intestines. He explained that because the woman was sick with intestinal cancer, they were an absolute mess. He could not even locate the small intestines. Next came one of my favorite organs: the kidneys! They really were shaped like a kidney bean and were roughly half the size of my fist. One kidney was slightly larger than the other (again, because the woman was very sick when she passed).

Directly under the left kidney was the spleen. Most of the organs in the body were a beige or grey color, but the spleen was dark red and approximately the size of my palm. Blood cells only survive in the body for 120 days, and the spleen is responsible for breaking down those old cells. Buried deep in the abdominal cavity, our guide pointed out a lurking ovarian cyst. I had previously thought that ovarian cysts were small, but this one was the size of a golf ball. Yikes! The dangers of being female. . .

After the complete cadaver, we moved to the table with the major organs. Our new guide picked up a brain (with a spinal cord that was over a foot long!) and said, “I am literally holding a person’s whole life in my hands. All their memories, knowledge, and experiences are contained right here.”

She explained that the cerebellum at the base of the skull controls all the involuntary movements and actions of the body. When people are under the influence of alcohol, the alcohol passes the blood brain barrier, which is normally able to keep all dangerous infections away from the brain, and inhibits the cerebellum, thus making it impossible to walk straight and perform other normal functions.

After that, she picked up a mystery organ and asked us if we knew what it was. None of our guesses were vaguely close. It was a tongue that was connected to the esophagus. Maybe the reason we couldn’t guess correctly was because it was so shriveled, or perhaps we do not naturally carry a mental picture of the esophagus.

Normally, the liver weighs four to five pounds, but our guide showed us a nine pound liver. The owner of that liver had abused drugs and alcohol, which inflicted major scarring and caused the organ to expand enormously. This liver even had grooves along its side caused from being pushed up against the ribs. She showed us several other organs, like a stomach and a heart, and a set of lungs that had been seriously damaged by smoking. After oohing and ahhing over these incredible organs, we were escorted out of the lab.

The sight of the cadaver was not horrifying, but the smell of the preservation chemicals had been difficult to tolerate. Fresh air had never smelled so sweet. I breathed deeply, many times. When the group exited the cadaver lab, the moms and younger children who had remained outside commented on how overwhelming the smell was. Apparently chemicals and organs don’t bear attractive odors.

If you are given the opportunity to tour a cadaver lab, I would highly encourage you to jump on board. Even if you aren’t interested in medicine or science (very few in our group were!), you will still be fascinated by the experience and sharpen your respect for the human body. You suddenly gain an image of everything that is inside of you. Now when I think of any organ, I can visualize its shape and position in the body. Originally, I had assumed that the experience would be traumatizing or gross, but it proved to be neither. There was no blood and guts, just an incredible cadaver waiting to be studied. Looking inside a dead body definitely brought anatomy to life for me.

A huge thank you to Grand Canyon University for opening up their cadaver lab to curious high schoolers like me!

For more information about Grand Canyon University’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology, visit our website or contact us using the Request More Information button on this page.

More About Audrey French:

Currently a senior in high school, Audrey French is a homeschooler from the state of Arizona. After high school graduation, she is planning to pursue a degree in Communications. As of now, she has completed two dual enrollment courses with GCU. Writing, reading, dancing, and teaching public speaking classes are her main hobbies. She enjoys writing about such topics as historical figures and our relationship with God. She is passionate about her faith in Jesus and helping nonprofit organizations such as Compassion International and Feed My Starving Children. You can find her blogging at livingblessedwithless.wordpress.com