The dead teach the living: A pre-med student’s first visit to the anatomy lab

Chabeli Cardenas is a Cuban-born, first-generation FIU student on a pre-med track, pursuing a bachelor’s in biology. She is taking part in a summer fellowship at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. The Florida Science Training and Research Fellowship (FSTAR) was established by the HWCOM Office of Diversity and Inclusion to encourage and increase the number of highly qualified medical school applicants from minority groups underrepresented in medicine. This is Cardenas’ account of the group’s visit to the HWCOM anatomy lab.

FIU sophomore Chabeli Cardenas is participating in the Florida Science Training and Research Fellowship (FSTAR) at the College of Medicine.

FIU sophomore Chabeli Cardenas is participating in the Florida Science Training and Research Fellowship (FSTAR) at the College of Medicine.

I am (thankfully) not very familiar with death—the only close relative I have had pass away was my paternal grandmother, and I was not able to attend the funeral service given that she was in Cuba and I here, in the U.S., 90 miles away. The idea that we live on borrowed bodies for a limited amount of time terrifies me, and so I try to avoid the thought altogether. Last week, however, I had no choice but to confront my fear as I entered the anatomy lab at the FIU College of Medicine. For one hour, I – along with 19 other pre-health students– was allowed the honor of learning about the history and the future of anatomy in the context of medical training.

As soon as I walked in two blue body bags caught my eye, and I instinctively knew that what lay inside of them were human cadavers. It was a disturbing realization to have—scary, surreal (all the synonyms). Within a few minutes, though, we became more comfortable and warmed up to the cold room. We were then given gloves and handed out covered aluminum trays. For each of the five tables, a lead investigator was chosen—the collective objective was to use the resources around (drawings, diagrams, skeleton model) to figure out what organs and bones we had each been given. As it turns out, inside the trays were real human bits and pieces—fragments of tissue which, at one point, made up the vital components of people [perhaps men (sons, fathers), perhaps women (daughters, mothers)].

My table was assigned what to me looked a lot like a clementine—a small piece of tissue with bilateral crescents separated by a narrow middle section. Our best guess? It probably belonged inside the stomach (definitely not the extremities, and the brain/ skull were of course out of the question). Truthfully, though, we were clueless. Most of us have never taken anatomy courses, and those of us who have are more familiar with animal models.

Upon closer inspection, however, what to me should have been obvious all along became crystal clear—we were looking at the thyroid gland. About three years ago, my mom was diagnosed with a lump in her neck and the subsequent months were nothing but an agonizing wait for the results—good? Bad? Fortunately, the former. I have a TSH deficiency—a mild case of hyperthyroidism, and twice a year should get neck ultrasounds. As a result, I am intimately familiar with the structures around the cervical spine.

Another table was assigned the trachea/ larynx. When placed behind the thyroid, I was amazed at how beautifully the structures connected—how the epiglottis stands open with breathing and slides down with swallowing, how the trachea sits in the middle of these tissues, how the perfect structural fit ensures the orchestration of life’s complexities (a symphony in tempo, on the beat). The detective experience was also valuable—it required critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving. And there was nothing more exhilarating than correctly identifying the structure: reaching a resolution where at first, there was only a question.

Other body parts encountered: a spleen (which we confused for the liver), a tibia (which we confused for a femur), a femur (which we then correctly identified), and a spinal cord (someone’s lifeline—where their brainbox dangled at one point).

I had to keep pulling myself back from my enthusiasm and disbelief into the present moment. It was hard; the joy of longing for the future is too sweet.

For now, I am thankful and humbled for that one hour in the anatomy lab: to FIU for providing underrepresented students with the opportunity of a summer fellowship where we can further develop our skills and love for medicine, to the mentors I have (for guiding me and steering me in the right direction) and, most importantly, to the individuals who make the ultimate sacrifice and choose to donate their bodies to science. Without them, where would we be?

They are the first teachers, the first patients.

We did not get to see the two cadavers inside the body bags.

I am glad—not because I am scared of the dead, no, but because that is an honor which should be reserved for another occasion and another setting (one which is up to par with the respect that these bodies deserve—not a one-hour session for pre-med students on a summer tour).

And so as of now (and until medical school), the mystery remains alive.

The awe and the honor, the enthusiasm and the curiosity (until death).