lengthwise. Like a pomegranate, whose leathery rind belies its jewel box interior, the kidney is spectacular on the inside. Each half is lined with the small chambers and pyramid-shaped tissue of the organ’s filtering system. Once everyone has taken a close look, we break up into our smaller groups and return to our cadavers. The goal: to replicate what Dana had so nimbly demonstrated.
As an observer, I have the option to move about the lab, from cadaver to cadaver, from group to group. (This is how I’d finally met the Woman in the Gas Mask from the first lab. Beneath the hazmat headwear was a lovely person named Iris, who is pregnant, it turns out, and, on the advice of her obstetrician, takes the extra precaution for her baby.) Although each lab lasts three hours, students are free to leave as soon as they finish the day’s assignments, and most of them do. But I like to stick around until the last body is re-draped. The whole experience has quickly come to seem normal to me; friends beg to differ, however, when I mention I am attending a course in anatomy.
“You mean, with bodies?” is always their first response. “Actual dead bodies?!”
What’s missing from their mental picture, I have come to understand, is the larger context. Just as a person who has never before stepped inside a church could gather from the altar and hushed candlelit atmosphere that it is a place of worship, so, too, could one enter the anatomy lab for the first time and readily grasp its purpose. Chalkboards line the entire back wall. Bookstands, poised at every table, hold identical manuals. Display cases and neatly labeled drawers contain anatomical models and specimens. Most important, though, is what happens about ten minutes into each lab: the instructors enter, at once transforming the space into a learning center of crackling vitality.
In putting together a team for the course, Dana’s first move was to coax back from early retirement the man she considers one of the leading anatomists in the United States, Dr. Sutherland. Tall and lanky, with silky white hair, Sexton dresses for comfort in sneakers and khakis and always wears whimsical neckties—one has dancing skeletons on a blood-red field. The antithesis of a dour anatomist, Sexton is sunny and self-deprecating, and in the lecture hall, a bit of a klutz, which is actually quite endearing. His clip-on microphone often falls off; he has trouble finessing the overhead light dimmer; his slides sometimes come up sideways (we all tilt our heads obligingly). The man obviously knows anatomy backward and forward—or, forgive me, posterior and anterior, as well as medial and lateral, superior and inferior, and in every other anatomical position—but he also makes it entertaining. In summing up the core behavioral impulses regulated by the sympathetic nervous system, for instance, Sexton once told the class: “Just remember the four
s: Fight. Flight. Fear. And—who knows the last
“That’s right,” Sexton said with a knowing nod. “Sex!”
Sexton brings the same exuberance to the lab, where, like his fellow instructors, he roams from group to group, answering questions and giving impromptu lectures. Each teacher has a different style. Dr. Nripendra Dhillon—Dhillon, for short—is the third of the trio of senior instructors and a master of visuals. I mean this both literally—he will often sketch on any nearby chalkboard, whether in the lecture hall or lab—and metaphorically. Lecturing on the intrauterine development of male reproductive organs, for instance, Dhillon made the descent of the testicles through the fetal body sound as dramatic as Odysseus’s epic journey home from Troy. With his deep, melodic voice, Dhillon recounted how the testes actually develop in a pocket of fat on the fetus’s back, behind the kidneys. But at around the ninth week of fetal life, these delicate little, well,
ship off. Traveling separately but to a
Catherine A. Wilson, Catherine T Wilson