Each morning, we coalesce in a sleepy fog, winding our way up two stories of spiraling stairs. At the entrance to the anatomy lab, refrigerated air heaves the sweet, pungent tang of formalin into somnific faces. The first blow lands hard, without fail. Fluorescent lights sting bleary eyes. Acrid fumes burn their way up nasal passages, down tracheas, through bronchi, and deep into the minute alveolar sacs of each pulmonary lobe, radiating an analgesic chill in their wake.
Let’s begin. We silently unbag our cadaver, neatly arranging his mass on the stainless steel table. It occurs to me that the body is a peculiar amalgam of anatomical structures and vessel for canine life. Against a stark, lifeless backdrop, this discordance cries out for recognition. I inhale sharply. A whiff of formalin catches in my throat, and brings me back to my task.
Today, we will study the cardiovascular system. Smell obliterated, only sight and touch remain. Intent eyes glimpse the heart, suspended, glistening serenely in the nest of the mediastinum. Fingers palpate this regal organ, presiding over the others. I nod my recognition to each of the great vessels emanating from it, probe muscular walls that resist my investigation. I pick up a scalpel, admiring the crisp edge of its unblemished blade as I pass it to my lab partner. I wait, wide-eyed, as she opens the right atrium with a single stroke.
Observe. Huddled together, we trace imaginary blood through each perfect chamber. We take turns carving the enigma of each heartbeat from the muscle, re-animating it with our electric enthusiasm. Its inner recesses exposed to the dry air, this tissue is compromised. We work quickly to preserve our findings, coating the surface in a mist of preservative solution. Liquid streams down in torrents. One stream ricochets off the heart, goes into my partner’s open mouth, and we’re strangely unrepulsed. We absorb this knowledge, too, desperately drinking in the deluge of information flowing from every direction.
Let’s review. I turn these structures over until I feel them in my mind’s hand. I grasp the aorta with eyes closed, its thick arch ascending the crook of my finger, and imagine the ghost of a pulse coursing through its smooth walls. It matters not that this heart is not my own. Its beat swells and echoes within me, merging with my own lub-dub. We neatly replace the heart in the thoracic cavity, pack the cadaver away, and leave the body behind for a few hours of afternoon lectures. As I descend the spiraling stairs, emerging from a formalin fog, this new knowledge sinks in. Renewed life courses through my blood, gleaned from the lifeless cadaver that animates tedious days.