The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's four-part series The Course of Their Lives is a fascinating and deeply affecting exploration of the dissection of human cadavers. The articles follow six students at the Medical College of Wisconsin through their gross anatomy course, as well as two people who have donated their bodies to science.
Photo by Hey Paul Studios.
The act of dissection another person, of learning all that you can from the insides of their body, is an intimate one, and The Course of Their Lives lays bare not just the visceral experience of cutting into human flesh, but also the emotional weight of it. There are descriptions of the dissection and the details they learn about their cadaver, even as many of them try to emotionally distance themselves from the task:
On Monday and Wednesday afternoons for two to three hours, they meet, the students at Table 1 and their cadaver. A relationship develops.
They do not know if the old woman was married, had children, worked. They don't know whether she was rich or poor, whether she lived on a farm or in an apartment in the city.
And yet the students are learning things about this woman that her own family and even the woman herself did not know. They know what the fatty tissue inside her lower back looks like. They've peered at the veins that carried blood through her body, the nerves that ferried impulses and sensations to her brain.
As McLaren and Zilisch cut away tissue, exposing the brachial plexus, a network of nerves that begins in the neck and shoulder, the old woman's arm juts out between them. The arm curves toward McLaren's back, the way it might if they were dancing.
Inside that arm lies a chapter of her story.
As he cuts along the left shoulder and arm, Zilisch notices that her cephalic vein seems unusually thick. In her armpits, the students discover swelling of the oval-shaped lymph nodes, part of the immune system that protects the body.
They point out these features to Hoagland.
"Aha!" he exclaims. "The story is coming together."
Dissection shows how the human body works, but also how it fails and gives out in the end. In that sense, each cadaver is a mystery with its own set of clues.
Why might the vein be abnormally large? Maybe a blockage of some kind, Hoagland suggests.
"It's like a garden hose. If you step on it, the fluid backs up. When you have a heart attack, the veins in your neck bulge and your face turns blue because blood is backing up."
The inflamed lymph nodes, he says, "probably meant she was fighting an infection. The nodes were getting larger and larger, compressing the axillary vein."
In another month, each of the 36 dissection groups will learn the cause of death for its cadaver. Until then, they search for clues.
At the same time, writer Mark Johnson realizes that these are very driven students who are dealing with the stresses of school lives, and that their gross anatomy exam isn't just about reverence for the body and what it teaches them; it's also about grades. At the same time, the act of dissection colors their lives outside the classroom in ways they didn't expect.
But the students aren't the only stars of the series. It also follows Geraldine "Nana" Fotsch who, along with her husband Bill, decided to donate her body to the Medical College of Wisconsin. Fotsch has her own reasons for donating her body, and her own hopes and dreams for her body's function after death. Her altruism and notion of the beauty of human dissection is stirring, and a poignant companion to the experiences of the students in the lab.
For more about donating your body to medicine, read our own Annalee Newitz's account, "I Donated My Body to Medicine."