09 June 2011

intricate beauty

Part III of the cadaver lab story.

Read the Rest of the Story

I thought this was going to be the final installment, but it's not. I just wrote to a stopping point, and it turns out I'll need a fourth part to wrap this all together.

This is what I enjoy so much about writing: it's always a surprise what comes out, even though the thoughts are coming from me.


The body is beautiful in its intricacies.

It is not pretty, that word we've cheapened and spread thin to apply to everything from the Homecoming Queen to a sunset. Looking down at the exposed spine on the cadaver, I did not think pretty. I thought: messy.

Yellow fat—the color of a lemon meringue pie—sat just a few millimeters under the skin. The fat, skin, and bones were the only parts I could accurately identify.

Everything else, to my untrained eye, was a mess. Not a bloody mess because of the way the body had been prepared for the lab, but still a mess of squishy tissue.

I stood on a step stool next to the body. This gave me better leverage as I wielded this tool that looked like gardening shears. And wielded is the most accurate word to use: the tool was as long as my arm.

I was using it to bite off pieces of the lamina, this bony structure that protects the spinal cord. Think of it as the roof of the spinal canal; I was doing a little roof job.

Look at that, in two paragraphs, I managed to reduce spine surgery to pruning a topiary or re-doing your roof. It's as if I wasn't even working on a body—but on a fix-it-up project.

That's not how I felt, though, as I stood, practically elbow deep in the body. The deeper I got in the body, the more I thought: the body is beautiful in its intricacies.

A surgeon stood next to me, pointing out what I was seeing, helping my untrained eye hone in on the wonder before me. He was like subtitles for a French film, or a guide through the Dutch Masters wing of the art museum: sometimes, you need help to understand what's so special about what's right in front of you.

"You've got the whole lamina out now, so with just a little more digging, you'll get to the spinal cord. It's under that ligament, so just cut through that...good. And there, there's the spinal cord."

I looked down, and everything in the room stopped. The hammering, the ratcheting, the drilling. The BBQ smell. How I had a stray shock of hair falling from my ponytail, but I didn't want to fix it because my hands were messy with parts of that intricate body.

It all stopped.

I slowly, oh-so-carefully cut open the sac protecting the spinal cord with a small scalpel: no more gardening shears for such delicacy, such cutting into the core of the body.

Angled over sharply, I was inches from the body as I pulled back the sac, revealing the cord, which is really this collection of translucent filaments, long strands swimming in spinal fluid.

I touched the spinal cord, gently rubbed the filaments between my fingers. So thin. So fragile-looking, like one pull could snap the string but of course, the spinal cord is tougher than that.

Holding the spinal cord, I traced the nerves coming off it, nerves peeling away from the cord to go to places like the heart and the fingers, the elbow and the bicep. Those nerves worked their way through the squishy tissue mess, following the path traced for them.

Conduits of movement. Messengers of pain. The wires that keep the body moving.

The body is beautiful in its intricacies.

Because of these thin filaments in my body, I can tell my hand to cut, my arm to wave, my head to nod in agreement. Because of these thin filaments, I can wince when I bite my nail too close to the quick.

I am me partly because of these thin filaments.

And that's when I stopped thinking of the body in front of me as a body.

I pulled back from the spine and saw the whole back. Saw the age spots and the hair. Saw the freckles and the scar on the upper back.

And I thought: You were someone. You were somebody to someone, and you could hug them because of this spinal cord I'm holding.

But then your body broke down and now someone else is left with a broken heart because you're here on the table in this cadaver lab instead of at their dinner table.


  1. Fearfully and wonderfully made. This portion beckons me to think deeper of the fearfully and wonderfully. How we are this beautiful tapestry of 'knit together' and uniquely formed and creatively designed. And, destruction and death reduces our physical beauty and design to, eventually, nothing. But actually and eventually, we do live on in perfection with God.

  2. I got goosebumps when you touched the spinal cord. :-) Please keep writing, I can't wait to see where this goes.

  3. Jill, that is beautifully said! I may have to steal it for Part IV :) And by "steal," I mean "give you full credit."

    And btw, Beth, Part IV should be coming over the weekend. I read this in my class last night and got some really good feedback on it, so I'm feeling all inspired.



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