Depth of anatomy

An exploration into a rare community cadaver lab

Courtesy of Beverly Boyer

The cadaver is far smaller than I expected. It rests wrapped in green towels, face up on a silver table in a small, uncluttered space. Small incisions separate the skin from the subcutaneous tissue, exposing a yellowish, fatty layer protecting the muscle wall. George — the name given to the cadaver by Beverly Boyer, cofounder of Peak Research Institute — is a direct donor: someone who consciously chose for his body to be dissected for the purpose of instruction. He is 5 feet and 3 inches, 130 pounds, in excellent physical shape save for an arthritic shoulder and a brain marked by dementia, which claimed him at age 89. To date, Peak Research Institute, based in Longmont, has accepted nine donors.

“I became professionally involved with the Peak Research Institute after meeting instructor Beverly Boyer, and understanding the great need for a research teaching environment to provide access to didactics and medical training in structural human anatomy for health care professionals, affiliates and students from diverse health and fitness specialties,” Dr. Peter Schmid, who leads classes, explains via email. “Beverly was instrumental in bringing this invaluable training to the Longmont and Boulder communities, and inspired me to act and become involved as the medical director.”

Schmid, along with cofounders Boyer and Bonnie Thompson and nurse Deb White, all say they believe the institute provides an unparalleled level of engagement for the communi ty. The program has been approved through the Colorado Department of Education to offer off-site continuing education classes. The goal this year is to generate enough income to create a stand-alone facility. Currently, the lab resides in the bottom of a funeral home.

“The most rewarding part is teaching students who are sincerely and emotionally committed to learning the mysteries of the human body found in anatomy,” says Schmid. “Observing their reactions and enthusiasm in the discovery and learning process from human nature is worth any time invested into this teaching program.”

If you’re acquainted with Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, then you don’t need an outline of the history of cadaver dissection. f the twisted circumstances, up until a hundred years or so ago, used to deliver the recently deceased from their burial plots to the clean, hard surface of a lab table for study. Even today, although almost all medical doctors learn anatomy intimately through working with cadavers, many health professionals obsess over anatomic function without ever experiencing a glimpse past our superficial layer of flesh. Thankfully, avenues for obtaining a body for dissection today are far less precarious — or illegal.

The process of donation of one of the recent subjects was overseen by the daughter of the direct donor, with whom Boyer maintains a close relationship. The woman whose body was donated had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and a group of people gathered around her to help her through that process. Somewhere along the line, she mentioned that she wanted to donate her body to science, and word got back to Boyer about it, who then met with the potential donor.

“It’s a whole other thing when you receive the body. When I saw the twinkle in her eye and heard from her that this is what she wanted to do — and asked her, ‘What do you want us to learn from you?’ And she said, ‘The effects of radiation on the brain,’” Boyer recounts. “She chose to have radiation to live another six months. She wanted to get her affairs in order.”

Later, the daughter reaffirmed that this is what her mother truly wanted and Boyer says it made her tear up to fulfill someone’s wishes.

Other times, the process is removed and informal. A body comes from another organization with a medical history outline and cursory background information. The cadavers are typically kept for a year, then divided into tissue samples, made into skeletal models or cremated and returned to the family for ritualistic scattering.

The day I visit the Peak Research Institute’s class, I am with three other female students: two physical therapists from Inspired Athletic Movement in Boulder and an acupuncturist. Of the four of us, only one student has worked with a cadaver before. There is palpable anticipation on the porch of the funeral home as we gather to prepare.

“We keep him in a cooler out in the garage where he has his own spot and when I’m not here, I’m like, ‘George is chillin’,” jokes Boyer, perhaps sensing our uneasiness with how to approach the subject matter.

Unpracticed laughter arises. 

“The people here in the funeral service have lightened me up. They’ve been in the industry for a long time,” Boyer says. “I’m not used to being so lighthearted about it and I’m glad I’m not so serious all the time anymore. I appreciate life outside the lab all the more for my time in lab. I think that you’ll take your own appreciation for life today.”

Throughout the class, a bond of cooperation and intrigue forms among us as we trade off asking questions based on our particular areas of interest.

“Have you seen the backside of the Soleus muscle?” Boyer asks us. “It’s named for a fish. It’s beautiful.”

The Soleus, an endurance muscle, is the most powerful muscle in the lower backside of the leg.

Some moments remain poetic. A student describes the underneath layers of skin as appearing like the color and texture of an orange peel — we are nature, so we recognize nature. Veins drape like fallen vines from a trellis.

Other moments beg a sobering attitude.

“Oh, god, the fingernails are a little too real,” a student says as she recoils from touching a hand. Boyer explains that this is a common reaction, and typically the hands, feet and face stay covered.

Most of the time, we retreat to the refuge of medical vernacular, a firm barrier of discovery between us and our personal revelations.

It is with the respectful rapture of a curious child carving a caught fish for the first time that I look over the complicated circuitry of the petite body. We huddle around sections, craning closer, politely pinching muscles, arteries and veins. My chest only swells once with something like tenderness as I notice a tuft of gray hair against the base of the neck. My brain stops compartmentalizing. And from the same place of curiosity that lends itself to poking dead fish eyes, comes this tearful, unnamable clump, which finally settles into a slightly bowed head and implacable humility.

These smaller moments of keen observation offer pockets for comprehending death. In its totality, it becomes overwhelming and abstract. As a life story finally resting in a basement for one more act of service, it becomes a doorway into thanks, in which a new understanding may come.

“What I am trying to establish here is a true community lab,” Boyer says after class as we talk through the experience. “It’s not about what I have to teach — the cadaver is teaching. We can look at a structure and see how it relates to our own lives.”

The student who flinched at the hand tells me that it was a lot less scary than she anticipated. She plans to return to go deeper into the body for lessons on the organs.

“It stays in your mind, for sure,” she says. “ I’ve tried to learn the anatomy and the 3D piece of it is lost when using books.”

Another student reflects as the rest of the group nods: “The body is such a miracle. It’s crazy how we form life — compared to a plant, which is complicated in a way, but pales compared to how complicated the human body is. You could study it forever.”